Friday, September 29, 2006

Cap and trade talk from the Bush Administration

It's just talk right now but politics and credible state actions to meet environmental challenges such as California's new law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions might be nudging the White House toward some type of cap and trade program. In a transcript of an interview with The Wall Street Journal now available, Bush said if the administration's current programs to combat global warming don't meet his targets "relative to economic growth . . . the country ought to consider a cap and trade."

It cannot be lost on the White House that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger just Wednesday signed the country's first greenhouse emissions law into effect and that a cap and trade program is almost certain to become the centerpiece of the state's approach, according to an interview of Robert Sawyer, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board, by EnergyForward.

Bush added: "Listen, all these issues require intense -- the issue of warming, the environmental issue, requires intense focus and dedication to new technology. New technologies will not only enable us to be good stewards of the environment, but will also achieve another important objective -- it will achieve a national security objective and an economic security objective."

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

7-11 tells Citgo to take a Big Gulp

7-Eleven announced this morning that it has ended its relationship with Citgo, the American subsidiary of Venezuela's state-run oil company. The convenience-store chain said that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's recent derogatory comments at the United Nations about President George W. Bush prompted it to drop Citgo gas at 2,100 of its 5,300 stores.

Several reports note that the move may be more business PR than a slap at Chavez -- 7-Eleven has been talking about launching its own branded gasoline line for more than a year.

Also, since Japan's Seven & I Holdings bought the chain in 2005, it hasn't actually been an "American" company -- it trades on the Tokyo Exchange, not the NYSE. So much for national pride driving the decision.

And, keep in mind that 7-Eleven -- then operating as Southland Corp. -- was the company that sold Citgo to the Venezuelans in the first place. Southland bought Citgo from Occidental in 1983, then flipped it Petroleos de Venezuela -- half in 1986, the other half in 1990.

The original Citgo company started around 1910 as Cities Service Company, a gas and electric utility in the Southwest that eventually moved into oil production. When the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (PUHCA) forced Cities to divest either its utility or its oil and gas holding, Cities picked oil.

If only PUHCA reform had come earlier: Oklahomans would still own Citgo, Hugo Chavez would be driving a cab in Caracas, and a gallon of gas might still cost less than a gallon of milk down at the 7-11.

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Oil import fee and lower Social Secuirty taxes to combat petro-authoritarianism

That's the upshot from veteran economist Phil Verleger via Tom Friedman's column in today's (September 27) editions of The New York Times: "If Bush were the leader he claims to be, he would impose an oil import fee right now to kep gasoline prices high, and reduce the tax rate on Social Security for low-income workers, so they would get an offsetting increase in income."

Friedman himself dispells talk of any conspiracy connected with the dramatic drop in oil prices since July. He attributes them to several reasons - "some cyclial, some technical and some having to do with the emergence of alternative fuels and conservation." That emergence is threatened, Friedman argues, if gasoline doesn't stay above $3 a gallon.

As for the petro-authoritarians, Friedman fingers not only Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for widely apparent reasons, but China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, as well. Why Guangya? China National Petroleum Corporation owns 40 percent of the Sudan consortium that pumps more than 300,000 barrels of oil a day from Sudanese wells. And Guangya tried blocking a U.N. resolution calling for the deployment of peacekeeping troops to Sudan to halt the genocide in Darfur.

What a tangled web we weave with our dependence on foreign oil.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Oil Price Conspiracy, continued

Stories about falling gas prices just don't pack an entertainment punch the way stories about waiting in long lines at the pump, forgoing food to fill up your Hummer, and riding to work on a low-cost, emissions-free unicycle can.

But, we can always find a good conspiracy theory to fill the void. The latest is that Republicans are manipulating oil markets to bring prices down before Election Day.

As effective an idea as that would be, I have two little questions: When did Bush get enough clout in the Middle East to move oil prices and why hasn't he used it to find Osama?

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More California dreamin'...clear skies, but how's business?

California's lawsuit against automakers isn't winning a lot of new friends over the the National Association of Manufacturers. At least they seem a little nonplussed about California's Economic Death Wish...

But, not to worry -- it won't be that bad. As Jim pointed out earlier today, California is now debating a petroleum production tax, too. That's balanced policy-making California-style: Push cars and gas out of the state simultaneously. A true supply and demand solution.

Meanwhile, gas prices are down again. Could we reach a point where Proposition 87's supporters and opponents actually spend more campaigning for their positions than the tax itself could raise, if the price of crude keeps falling?

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Googling energy efficiency

Two weeks ago, VIA Technologies was touting the benefits of its carbon-free computer processor. Today, Google weighed in with a plan for improving energy efficiency in computers. This morning at the Intel Developers’ Forum, Google’s Luiz Barroso urged the PC industry to modify the way computers suck up electricity – Google says some “not particularly challenging” modifications could cut computer energy waste from 30-45 cent to around 10 percent.

The idea may have a familiar ring to some in the electric utility industry. The 80 Plus coalition – which includes Southern California Edison, NSTAR, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Efficiency Vermont, Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, Pacific Gas & Electric, Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, National Grid, Xcel, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and Western Massachusetts Electric – is already trying to encourage manufacturers to adopt more energy-efficient computer power supplies.

Here’s an interesting note: According to EPRI, computer power supplies currently consume about 2 percent of all U.S. electricity. That’s just slightly less than amount of U.S. electricity that comes from oil generation.

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Spending on California's Proposition 87 headed for $87 million

The battle over Proposition 87 in California this November has spurred fundraising - pro and con combined - to $79 million and seems destined to become one of the most expensive contests in the state's history. Prop 87, formally known as the "Clean Alternative Energy Act," would tax petroleum production from California for the first time and raise an estimated $4 billion over 10 years. The goal: to cut the use of petroleum (natural gas and products refined from crude oil) by 25 percent over the next decade.

California would join other states that tax petro production at varying rates. The tax would range from 1.5% and 6% depending on the price of a barrel of crude oil, according to the California Legislative Analyst Office. It would generate between $225 million and $485 million of new revenue annually for California to fund grants to businesses and universities to research and develop alternative energy and educate consumers about their application.

Here is how several states currently tax petroleum production:
- Alaska, 15%
- Louisiana, 12.5%
- Kansas, 8%
- Oklahoma, 7%
- North Dakota, 6.5%
- Wyoming, 6%
- Montana, 4.8%
- Texas, 4.6%
- New Mexico, 3.75%

According to a report citing state records today, The Yes on 87 campaign has raised about $32 million while opponents have raised more than $41 million.

A Field Poll and a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California in conjunction with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation this summer both reflected strong support for the Proposition. In the PPIC survey, 51% of Republicans were in favor.

California's 2005 oil production represented about 12% of the U.S. total.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

All eyes on Schwarzenegger: will he require half of new cars sold by 2020 to run on alt fuels

California is set to march more aggressively into a cleaner energy future with a bill from Assemblyman Joe Nation, the "Foreign Oil Independence Act of 2006," (aka AB 1012), which awaits Gov. Schwarzenegger's signature as September comes to a close. This legislation requires half of all new cars and light trucks sold in California by 2020 to run on alternative fuels.

Proponents such as the California League of Conservation Voters argue that volatile fossil fuel markets, increasing pollution from developing nations, and the increasing availability of new technologies are all converging and require that states act now, especially because the federal government is showing little interest. Opponents such as the California Chamber of Commerce challenge whether it's realistic in the first place and that even the pursuit of it will drive up vehicle and fuel prices beyond the reach of many Californians.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

$3 billion earmarked to combat global warming, courtesy of Richard Branson

Virgin Group founder and Chairman Richard Branson has pledged 100% of the profits from his air, rail and other transportation enterprises -- estimated at $3 billion -- to deal with climate change over the next 10 years via the Clinton Global Initiative, the Brit biz mogul announced today in New York City.

Clinton said Branson's pledge is groundbreaking not just because of the money involved "but because of the statement he is making: clean energy is good for the world and it's good for business," Reuters and other news outlets reported from the Clinton initiative's annual summit. CNBC host Maria Bartiromo opined that the latest sequence of green investments are tipping the scales where the private sector is taking more action against global warming than government agencies are.

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration has come forth with some initiatives of its own on the climate front, according to The Washington Posts Juliet Eilperin and other journalists. Whether they constitute the rumored grand plan that would boost GOPers' prospects at the polls in November or address a growing chorus of criticism within his own party for the lack of a substantive climate change strategy, remains to be seen.

The Bush plan, outlined by Department of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, is "visionary" for its planning horizon but lacking in scope, immediate action and fresh ideas, according to both Greenpeace and House Science Commitee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY).

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

MIT's invisible floating turbine

CNET reported on Monday that researchers from MIT and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are getting ready to unveil a wind turbine system that can sit in deep water much further off shore than present wind turbine systems can. The added distance could help render complaints about the units ruining seaside views -- views from someplace like, say, the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport.

According to the MIT prof who helped develop the system, the new wind generators should be able to generate about twice as much electricity as similar units closer to the shore, thanks to stronger, steadier off-shore winds.

CNET says the developers hope to install a half-scale test prototype off Cape Cod soon – a move that will turn out to be either incredibly audacious or inexplicably boneheaded, given the controversy siting Cape Wind has stirred up in that same area.

But, if you can make it there, maybe you can make it anywhere.

It’s too early to tell how the inevitable opposition to this technology – from someone, somewhere – will develop. Readers responding to CNET’s story seemed worried mainly about bird fatalities – ironically, the story’s headline describing the turbines as “invisible” prompted one reader to ask, “I wonder if sea birds will find these to be quite as invisible.”

(If there’s a right way to respond to that comment without stirring up some part of the birding community, I don’t what it is.)

Meanwhile, an actual question: How economical and practical will it be to transmit electricity from a site that far offshore?

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What do "Connie Mae" and "electranet" have in common?

Al Gore, that's who.

Amid a growing array of rumors that the White House is preparing a green strategy to boost the mid-term election prospects of Republicans in close races, Gore is proposing a "Carbon Neutral Mortage Association" (aka "Connie Mae") to help homeowners retrofit and build energy-efficient homes. He's also urging creation of what he termed an "electranet" to enable homeowners and businesses to buy and sell surplus electricity; and he is urging the substitution of the payroll tax with a pollution tax to discourage pollution. We'll let the real prospects, if there are any, come from those whose involvement is needed to help make each of these proposals even viable.

Stay tuned for more from the former two-term Vice President and winner of the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election. Not only did The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal ALL have bylined stories about Gore's speech Monday, September 18 to the New York University School of Law, they'll no doubt be competing to track Gore's self-described "grass-roots" movement to unite corporations, labor, farmers, faith-based organizations and others around federal legislation to freeze greenhouse gas emissions.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Making the Wind-Hydro-Hydrogen Link

John Gartner's blog Autopia on Wired makes some great points about how the future of fuel-cell cars is linked to the production and availability of hydrogen. He references an editorial by GM chief engineer Matthew Fronk, who explains that we'll need a "hydrogen infrastructure" to support re-energizing the fuel cells.

Gartner points out that, given the remote locations of most wind projects -- and the expense and difficulty of running transmission lines to each site -- a co-located hydrogen production facility could help defray the cost of wind (or hydro) generation. It would also provide a local resource for hydrogen, which could help make fuel cell economics more attractive, too.

Fronk goes on to say that both hydroelectric turbines and wind turbines make natural partners for hydrogen production efforts -- when attached to electrolyzers, both technologies can use excess capacity to create hydrogen. He even recommends redeveloping Rochester, New York, which has hydropower and wind turbines nearby, as a "Hydrogen Village."

It may take initiatives like the one GM's Fronk envisions to make fuel cells a commercial reality. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, most hydrogen now produced in the United States occurs through a "steam reforming" process that converts methane into hydrogen gas. Unfortunately, DOE says the process also creates "large quantities of carbon dioxide" -- not much of a help if you're battling global warming.

That's why the electrolysis potential in hydro and wind are so important to the fuel cell's future -- when you separate hydrogen from a water atom through electrolysis, you create nothing but oxygen as a by-product.

DOE is also researching ways to use high-temperature advanced nuclear reactors to produce hydrogen. The department describes the potential for this technology as "immature" and not yet "economically and commercially feasible," although industry sources are optimistic that nuclear power plants could provide the backbone for the "hydrogen economy," either through reactor-based technologies or electrolyzers that run on off-peak power from the plants.

Still, opponents are already lining up against the very idea of linking nuclear energy and hydrogen production. The anti-nuke group Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) issued a fact sheet in 2003 arguing that tying hydrogen production to nuclear power would lead us to a hydrogen-production technology compatible with the country's nuclear power plants, but not necessarily one that would be the best technological or financial choice.

NIRS also notes that the nuclear-hydrogen model would centralize hydrogen production at large generating plants, creating transportation and delivery challenges. That's an important point, and one that could have a big impact on how the "hydrogen infrastructure" develops.

As this technology matures, it'll be interesting to see whether the convenience of being "near the source" or the traditional economies-of-scale large generating plants have always offered drives the fuel-cell future.

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But, how do they feel about coal in Newcastle?

According to a report today from the Associated Press, the Dutch are complaining that energy-generating windmills are "blighting the landscapes that once inspired Dutch painters like Rembrandt van Rijn."

Hmmmm....skates getting a little dull, Hans Brinker?

What do Dutch landscapes contain? Windmills. Hundreds of them. Windmills next to canals, windmills next to people in wooden shoes, windmills next to prosperous farms -- they're one of Holland's most iconic images.

(Also, I should insert a technical note here: Rembrandt mainly painted portraits -- interiors, known for their interplay of light and dark -- not landscapes. In other words, if the Dutch vistas spoke to Rembrandt, they told him to stay inside and close the curtains.)

And, it's not as if the Dutch wind opponents are trying to preserve specific vistas. The organizer of one 15,000-member anti-wind group told the AP, "We're not just NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] about wind energy. We're NIABY -- not in anybody's backyard."

Indeed, they don't seem to want anything in anyone's backyard -- they also oppose constructing substations that receive cables coming from offshore wind turbines no one on the shore can see.

(These folks are going to love the quaint coal plants and picturesque nukes they'll need for future baseload capacity.)

One bright spot in all this: the Netherlands' Bird Protection Society is not reflexively anti-wind. The group wants to minimize bird fatalities with the off-shore wind turbines, but they see it as a small problem compared to the possible threat of global warming.

Besides, as the society's director told the AP, "Apparently, birds see the turbines and avoid them."

They've got some impressively smart birds in Holland.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Legislators gone wild, deregulation in Illinois

Next to Maryland's 70 percent electricity rate hike, you'd think no one would even notice increases in the 20-50 percent range, but Ameren and Commonwealth Edison customers in Illinois are going to the mattresses.

On January 2, 2007, Illinois's nine-year rate-freeze will end, allowing the state's utilities to charge rates commensurate with the auction prices they pay electricity suppliers. According to ComEd, the rates its customers will pay in January will be 3 percent lower than they paid before the rate freeze in 1995 -- but still 20 percent higher than what they pay today.

The company has floated a plan to stagger the increases by 10 percent per year with customers paying deferred fees and interest off between 2010 and 2012. The watchdog group Citizens Utility Board rejects this idea as a "high-cost loan, which won't help consumers."

Meanwhile, the Illinois attorney general and the state's political machine are all swinging into gear to end this outrage -- a situation that sounds even more expensive and less efficient than the Maryland solution of designating a scapegoat and firing it.

Stay tuned...

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Legislators gone wild, deregulation in Maryland

Maryland's Court of Appeals shot down a measure passed by the state's General Assembly earlier this year firing the entire Maryland Public Service Commission. The PSC members are to return to work until the governor fires them or their terms (or they) expire. Whichever comes first.

The General Assembly enacted the legislation upon hearing that deregulated Baltimore Gas & Electric planned to increase utility rates by some 70 percent on July 1 of this year.

For the record, this is the self-same legislature (give or take a seat) that designed Maryland's 1999 deregulation plan -- a measure affectionately known among Maryland ratepayers as "the deregulation plan that failed to anticipate 70 percent rate hikes on July 1, 2006."

(On another note, 20/20 Energy is still checking the archives, but we believe this also marks the first time since the departure of the late lamented Spiro T. Agnew that any Maryland official has emerged from a court case with a job.)

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Good news and bad news for oil at week's end

Good news first: The planned three-day Nigerian oil strike ended early, after the country's federal ministry of productivity and labor intervened. (And, yes, this is the first time we've ever typed the words "federal" and "productivity" in the same sentence.)

Union organizers say they'll meet with the government again on September 22 to discuss plans for protecting workers and facilities from future rebel militia attacks.

Now, the bad news, which is very bad indeed: According to government sources, al Qaeda is responsible for two botched attacks on Yemeni oil and gas facilities on September 15. Today, security forces in Yemen arrested four additional al Qaeda terrorists who were planned attacks in San'a, the country's capital.

Yemen's interior minister, Rashad Rashad al-Eleimi, told reporters he believes the attacks relate to the message al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri released on September 11 threatening attacks on sites where Westerners are "stealing Muslim oil."

Two historical notes: Yemen is Osama bin Laden's homeland and it is the site of the USS Cole bombing in 2000.

One future note: Yemen is set to hold national elections on September 20, when pro-West v. pro-Islamist policies are facing off.

Policy Note A: Attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria and Yemen seem small in the scheme of things, but they have the potential to disrupt supply and fan anti-Western resentment, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This is bad for business, energy, and national security.

Policy Note B: If high prices and global climate change don't make enough of a case for fast-tracking domestic energy resources, this should.

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DOE to hydro and geothermal: You're old enough to support yourself

The Christian Science Monitor is reporting that the U.S. Department of Energy has declared geothermal and hydroelectric power "mature" and kicked them out the funding nest. DOE's FY2007 budget contains $0 for research into the two technologies, down from the meager $24 million ($1 million for hydro, $23 million for geothermal) they received this year.

DOE has a lot of belt-tightening to do, but this seems like an especially ham-handed move right now.

First, DOE has spent the last six years refuting critics who question its support for "mature" nuclear energy -- through Price Anderson, GNEP, funding for new licenses, etc. -- at the expense of renewables. While the department has sound reasons for supporting nuclear development, this latest move would seem to prove the critics right. The decision not only slaps down the renewables crowd, but it undermines an important pro-nuclear argument.

Second, neither geothermal nor hydro has "maxed out" in terms of technological advances. For example, the article talks about our friends at Verdant Power, who have been working for several years to drop tidal-action turbines into New York's East River, not far from the United Nations. These aren't 19th-century salmon-crunching industrial beaver dams -- we're talking 21st century, high-tech, go-with-the-flow. And, the technology is still in its infancy.

Finally, these technologies actually meet the standards Bush set out in the National Energy Policy. At a visit to the Limerick nuclear power plant in May 2006, Bush said:

"So what I believe the American people should understand is that we can put policies in place that encourage economic growth, so you've got a better standard of living, and at the same time, become less dependent on energy from overseas and protect the environment."

Syntax aside, his point is clear: Encourage profitable industries that will provide reliable, domestic, environmentally sound energy choices. Geothermal and hydro are domestic resources by their very nature; promising developments are making them more reliable and environmentally friendly. Support from the federal government can help these technologies -- and the generation behind them -- meet the profitability goal, while also serving the public interest.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Caldicott taking her show on the radioactive road

Long-time anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott officially announced the schedule for her upcoming 12-city book tour today. The founder of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility will start promoting Nuclear Power is Not the Answer at an event in White Plains, New York -- just down the street from the Indian Point nuclear power plant -- on September 17.

I'm more than a little worried about Helen's safety on this tour. She'll be traveling up and down the East Coast, across the South, and out to California -- about 4,100 miles total, according to Mapquest. By barnstorming in support of her anti-nuclear book, she's going to be absorbing a helluva lot of radiation.

The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that a person typically gets about 1 millirem of radiation for every thousand miles of jet travel. By that calculation, Dr. C. will pick up about 4 millirems on her book tour. (Even more if she has a layover someplace and spends time watching TV in the airport bar.)

The American Nuclear Society figures it out by hours in the air. ANS says she'll get about 0.5 millirems per hour in the air. Helen's flights should take at least 13 hours -- please don't keep her in a holding pattern -- so, by ANS's method, she's actually getting about 6.5 millirems.

ANS also adds another .002 millirems every time you go through airport security. Assuming that she's going to be flying in and out of eight or nine major cities, she'll pick up another .016 or so millirems.

And, when you consider the amount of time she spent in front of her computer terminal actually writing the book -- at least 1 or 2 more millirems worth -- it's clear that, in her quest to eradicate nuclear power, Helen Caldicott has become a selfless paragon of radiation absorption. (A few more books, and she'll be closing in on the 100-millirem-per-year limit the NRC puts on its licensees.)

If only Helen would retire to a nice neighborhood with a nuclear power plant, where her radiation exposure would fall to a much more reasonable .01 millirems per year...

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Bad timing for a conspiracy on oil prices

Earlier this week, the folks at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) took a swing at CNN's Jack Cafferty for suggesting that the oil companies might be deflating gasoline prices to help position the Republicans for the November elections.

If Cafferty's theory is right, I applaud the oil and gas industry for its excellent advanced planning. They sure have learned a big lesson from just a year ago, when the media was bashing them for lousy pre-Katrina planning. Way to get in front of the ball, guys!

But, I'm inclined to agree with NAM that Cafferty's out to lunch on this one. In fact, a letter NAM released on September 15 helps prove the point.

NAM, along with the American Forest & Paper Association, the American Chemistry Council, and the American Gas Association, sent a letter to House and Senate conferees urging them to move legislation opening the Outer Continental Shelf to energy development. Both houses passed similar bills approving this over the summer, so the legislation needs to move out of conference and over to the White House before the end of this session.

But wait, if the oil and gas industry -- and its allies -- want this OCS legislation to move so badly, would they REALLY want gasoline prices to fall right now?

Jump into the way-back machine and return to February 21, 2006, when the Washington Post explained that the oil industry and its allies have two weapons in the fight to open the OCS: hurricanes and high energy prices. The hurricanes, namely Katrina and Rita, demonstrated that the industry can operate safely under extreme conditions -- and they showed how fragile our supply lines are. High energy prices underscore the need to increase resource supplies to meet growing demand -- and they soften the public's tolerance for new energy production facilities.

Here in the present, though, neither of those two arguments seems very timely. We're headed into fall without any severe hurricanes, so the specter of another Katrina doesn't have much clout. As for energy prices, they're falling. So much for the the legislative arsenal.

If Cafferty wants to find a conspiracy theory in all this, he might think about looking for plots involving companies inflating prices -- and maybe even seeding storm clouds. Oil at $100 a barrel and a category 5 storm would do a lot more to help the industry open the OCS -- and position itself for the future -- than a bid to help Republicans in November would.

(Note to API: I'm covering for you on this one, dudes, but if Cafferty finds out you've had Elvis locked up in the conference room all these years, you're on your own.)

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PSEG gets no respect in the non-merger

Less than a day after Exelon and Public Service Enterprise Group called off their long-planned merger, Exelon stocks are inching up, while PSEG is falling.

Why? According to CNBC, PSEG's nukes, including the embattled Salem and Hope Creek, have started to "perform better" since Exelon took over their management in anticipation of the merger. Now, Wall Street worries that the plants will backslide into ill-managed infamy, and investors are taking it out on PSEG.

Here's the funny part -- unless you're a PSEG investor: Just last evening, a few short hours after word about the scuttled merger hit the wires, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a public meeting in Pennsville, New Jersey, to discuss its plans for curtailing its increased safety oversight efforts at Salem and Hope Creek.

In other words, the NRC doesn't see any special safety problems anymore.

And, for a little more irony, consider that the merger's critics cited safety concerns as being among the reasons why they opposed the deal. New Jersey Public Interest Research Group issused a statement in January 2005 saying Exelon's safety record -- not PSEG's -- was one of the main reasons for its concerns.

Said NJ PIRG: "We believe that unless Exelon fixes its safety problems, state regulators should do everything they can to oppose this merger."

-- and --

"Exelon has put profits over safety time and time again."

But, despite the NRC's good news about safety at the plants and the news about the merger, which you'd think they'd view as being good for safety at the plants, NJ PIRG didn't even mention safety in its post-merger comments.

The group told the Asbury Park Press, "This is really just a major victory for consumers across the state who, if this merger did go through...would have been hit with what could have been skyrocketing electricity bills."

(Jeez, NJ PIRG -- you're starting to sound like Exelon, putting profits before safety like that.)

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Russian shift signals new nukes, increased oil production

Russian president Vladimir Putin announced this week that his country will shift its energy mix significantly over the next 20 years as it installs new nuclear generating capacity. Putin says new nuclear generation will provide about a quarter of the country's electricity, up from the current 16 percent.

In the next 10-15 years, he also plans a tenfold increase in the Russia's oil exports to Asia. Russia currently exports about 3 percent of its domestic oil production -- Putin intends to push that to 30 percent.

Russia presents an energy paradox -- it has abundant resources and technologies, but lacks the infrastructure to deliver them. Right now, Soviet-era pipelines need repair, the grid is overtaxed, key energy companies are privatizing and spinning apart, and the energy market is lurching to deregulation.

On September 14, Unified Energy System chairman Anatoly Chubais announced that his company would have to restrict power supplies to 16 regions this winter to avoid over-stressing the grid. UES had to adopt similar measures last winter. Most of the restrictions will affect industrial customers.

Yes, despite the restrictions, Russia has enough excess capacity in some parts of the country to wheel electricity into the Nordic region, selling as much as 1,300 megawatts through Fingrid.

Meanwhile, electricity consumption in Russia is soaring -- up 150 percent in just the last eight months, according to Chubais. The government announced in August that it will spend about $6 billion in 2007 on non-nuclear generation and infrastructure to help meet electricity demands. The figure represents nearly twice Russia spent on the sector this year.

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradhov said on September 14 that the Russian government also intends to invest about $80 billion "in the near term" to meet demand. Projects will include new power stations and infrastructure improvements, co-financed through public/private partnerships.

UES could also find itself with plenty of cash on hand by the end of this year. Chubais is considering on IPO for UES's generating divisions that could net about $17 billion. Chubais is in talks with Germany's E.On and Italy's Enel about possible investments.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Carbon-free computing and offset hedges

Taiwan-based VIA Technologies announced a new computer chip that claim's to be the world's first "carbon-free" processor. The company says that through power-saving technology and a corporate commitment to reducing environmental impact, they can offset all carbon-dioxide generated through the VIA C7-D's operation. (The company calculates that a processor's lifespan is just three years -- a figure that seems a tad low to those of us still cranking along with our vintage 2001 Pentium 4's.)

The company also announced a new green-computing rating system called the "TreeMark" rating that attempts to calculate how many trees it would take to sequester all the carbon dioxide associated with a given processor. According to VIA, its new C7-D requires just four trees, while Intel's Pentium D requires 31 trees and AMD's Athlon 64 requires 21. (Guess we won't see many TreeMark icons appearing on boxes with "Intel Inside" anytime soon...)

VIA intends to use a three-pronged strategy -- reforestation, alternative energy, and energy conservation -- to achieve its carbon offsets. Environmental group Carbon Footprint, Ltd., is working with the firm to undertake the project.

VIA doesn't say how and when it intends to implement the offsets, which could change the scope of its commitment considerably. For example, will they base their efforts on units sold, units produced, or units that reach consumers? And, where and when does the promise begin -- when the chip goes into production or when the consumer powers up?

The business model could create some interesting possibilities in an open carbon-trading market. If VIA invests in carbon offsets for, say, 10 million processors, but only sells 8 million processors, in theory it would have "excess" offsets to trade away. In that sense, unused carbon offsets could become a hedge for product sales themselves -- if you don't sell the chip, sell the carbon offsets and make a little back.

Nigerian oil strike may signal trouble ahead

Nigeria's oil unions started a three-day strike on September 13 amid growing security problems at the country's petroleum facilities. Both white-collar and blue-collar workers walked out to protest the death of an oil-industry worker who got caught in a gunfight between government forces and regional militants in August. Then, on September 12 -- just a day before the scheduled strike was to start -- came word that gunmen attacked a Chevron boat in the Niger Delta, killing another worker.

Although both Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell say that they've made arrangements to reduce the strike's impact, the incident marks another milestone in Nigeria's already shaky oil industry. According to Forbes, production from the country is already down about 900,000 barrels per day since the beginning of this year.

According to the Energy Information Agency's, International Energy Annual 2003, Nigeria accounts for about a quarter of all crude oil produced in Africa. U.S. imports from Nigeria reached a high of 39,793,00 barrels per month in March 2004. That figure fell to 32,818 barrels per month in June 2006, according to EIA.

Nigerian oil accounted for about 10 percent of all U.S. oil imports in 2005. Among OPEC countries, only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela exported more oil to the United States than Nigeria did last year.

Natgas price has to double to make nukes pay, Russian fed says

The head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) told a meeting of Russian nuclear industry officials that nuclear power won't break even until prices for natural gas in Russia reach at least $82 per 1,000 cubic meters. Sergei Kiriyenko added that the economics may change as Russia's natural-gas industry restructures over the next decade.

Kiriyenko noted that state financing for Russia's nuclear power program is set to end in 2015, just a year after the country plans to open several new nuclear plants, which will replace existing gas-fired facilities.

Ag policy and energy policy dovetail in UK is reporting that Scotland's farmers are taking a hard look at how they might be able to profit from a global -- or even UK-wide -- shift to biofuels. In fact, according to a Deloitte & Touche study cited in the article, the future may be here already: Growing concerns about global warming and increased interest in energy-supply security are playing "into the hands of the farming lobby."

The article points out that arable farming creates natural carbon dioxide sinks, making it another weapon in the arsenal against global warming. When that same land produces feedstock for environmentally friendly biofuels, it creates a formidable benefit.

For British farmers, who face shrinking subsidies under the European Union's farm regime, the thought of a robust and dedicated market for wheat and rapeseed would be welcome news. Some observers even worry that, in a rush to jump on the biofuel bandwagon, farmers might start abandoning their food-growing operations -- a concern rejected by English National Farmers' Union president Peter Kendall, who called for a land set-aside specifically for fuel production.

Meanwhile, the Home Grown Cereals Authority and the Renewable Energy Association have announced a series of workshops around Great Britain to educate farmers on how they can capitalize on the growing interest in biofuels.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Trash becoming a resource in Florida

Fort Pierce, Florida, is getting set to turn its garbage into an energy resource, according to an Associated Press report. St. Lucie County is working with Geoplasma on a plasma-arc gasification facility that could:
  • Eliminate 30+ years' worth of trash -- about 4.3 million tons -- and empty the county's entire landfill within 18 years
  • Sell 120 megawatts of electricity per day back to the grid
  • Provide 80,000 pounds of steam per day to power a nearby Tropicana Juice plant.

Sound too good to be non-controversial? You bet it is. Anti-waste activists at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives question Geoplasma's claims that the plant will have lower emissions than a natural-gas plant of the same size.

Meanwhile, the, um, "pro-waste" National Solid Wastes Management Association "scoffs" -- that's the AP's word -- at the idea that plasma technology could obviate the need for a landfill. And so on.

But, this technology could find a warm welcome from anti-nuclear activists, who are promoting the notion that energy efficiency and renewables are far better solutions than nuclear power for mitigating global warming while still meeting electricity demand.

The AP story quotes a Georgia Tech prof who claims that a string of large plasma facilities around the country vaporizing trash could generate "electricity equivalent to about 25 nuclear power plants." Alas, he doesn't say how many plasma plants it would take to carry out this electro-prestidigitation.

(And, with Circuit City and Best Buy finally showing profits, will we have enough plasma left for TVs and waste-reduction/energy-production plants? America needs to know. Where is the Plasma Protection Society when we need them?)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Another coal plant in activists' crosshairs

North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN) filed a motion with the North Carolina Utilities Commission in late August seeking "postponement" of Duke's application for two new coal-fired power plants near Charlotte, North Carolina. The group claims that energy efficiency programs, "if administered in the public interest by a qualified party," would obviate the need for the new fossil generators.

The move represents something of a departure from NC WARN's usual nuclear-centric interest, but it reflects a growing trend among anti-nuclear groups and general environmental groups to press for more efficiency and renewables as the solution for mitigating global warming and meeting electricity demand.

I want my MTV! (Green-powered, please)

Energy Action Coalition, a group dedicated to building student support for the "clean energy movement," announced this week that it has signed a deal with MTV to encourage college students to get their schools to buy green power. Rapper Jay-Z launched the "Break the Addiction Challenge" on September 6 during MTV's "Total Requests Live" show. Students who can persuade their colleges to buy green energy will win prizes including student-lounge makeovers and music.

Energy Action is part of the Earth Island Institute. Organizations including Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Energy Justice Network, Greenpeace, Indigenous Environmental Network, National Wildlife Federation, League of Conservation Voters, Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and others are also coalition members. The group receives support from Center for Resource Solutions, Nuclear Reality Campaign, Student Public Interest Research Groups, Utah Clean Energy, and SustainUS.