Quantcast

Matt Bivens | The Nation

Matt Bivens

Author Bios

Matt Bivens

Matt Bivens has covered energy, environmental and nuclear issues for www.thenation.com and a range of other publications. A former editor of the Moscow Times, he recently returned to the United States after nine years reporting from Russia for publications including the Los Angeles Times and Harper's. He was formerly the author of The Nation Online's "Daily Outrage" weblog. click here to read those postings.

Articles

News and Features

There's been scant notice of refugees being brutally driven out of Chechnya.

American nuclear power plants are in serious danger from an easily fixable problem.

To the myth-makers of war, the Americans in Iraq look
like the Russians in Chechnya.

The thirteen self-declared "citizen weapons
inspectors" marching down a rain-swept road just
outside Baltimore knew they weren't going to be
allowed inside the US military's Aberdeen Proving

New Mexico is on the verge of joining
those happy few states that have acted to rein in the
extreme influence of corporate money on US politics.



A Clean, Green, Energy Machine

Golden, Colo.

I enjoyed Matt Bivens's April 15 "Fighting for America's Energy
Independence," which is important in getting the vision and
possibilities of renewable energy sources to the public. I have one
small correction. Bivens says, "The Union of Concerned Scientists says
100 square miles in Nevada could produce enough solar electricity to
power the nation." The actual land area is more like 10,000 square miles
(a square 100 miles on a side) and the photovoltaic panels cover only
half that land. My explanation of the calculation of that number is in
the July 30, 1999, Science. Since then our energy use has grown,
and the area is now almost 12,000 square miles (110 miles on a
side)--still not a large area, when compared with the 45,000 square
miles of land we've covered with paved roads.

It is interesting to note, given the Freedom car announcement, that if
you wanted to supply hydrogen for 200 million fuel-cell vehicles
(current US fleet), you would need an area of only 3,600 square miles.
This is not necessarily the way we should do it, but it is important to
note that we have the technologies in hand to utilize the solar
resource, should we wish to exploit it.

JOHN A. TURNER
National Renewable Energy Laboratory


Chicago

Matt Bivens's implicit assumption that so-called renewable energies
have negligible external costs in relation to nuclear power is an often
repeated canard. According to an exhaustive study by the European Union,
the externalities of nuclear power are comparable to those of wind- or
solar-generated electricity. The study calculates external costs on a
euros-per-megawatt-hour basis for several means of generating
electricity and finds that the basic premise of Bivens's article cannot
be supported in Europe. Naturally, nuclear power also has the tremendous
advantage of not being beholden to the weather and being able to provide
a reliable base load, night and day, 24/7, 365 days a year. Many US
nuclear power plants routinely operate continuously for more than a year
without a glitch (see www.externe.info).

Simply put, to produce relatively small, unreliable amounts of
electricity, renewable energies must consume large amounts of materials
(some toxic, like selenium or cadmium for solar panels), land, natural
resources and person-power. Nuclear power produces abundant power from
small amounts of material, at small external costs, even when one
accounts for the vanishingly small probability of accidents and the cost
of waste disposal.

BORO MALINOVIC


Houston

Matt Bivens does not mention battery-powered vehicles, which have zero
pollution and are now available as fleet vehicles (e.g., buses, trucks,
rental cars). One company, Electric Fuel Corp. (www.electric-fuel.com),
has demonstrated an electric bus using zinc/air batteries, which will
power a loaded, air-conditioned bus over a full day's bus route.

While the battery-powered (electric) bus is now available, a vehicle
will not be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell in the near future. The
current hydrogen fuel cell is many times the cost of an
internal-combustion engine, and it is likely that the hydrogen fuel will
be generated on board the vehicle from an oil derivative (e.g.,
methane), which will emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. It is high
time that someone recognized the high cost and limited usefulness of the
hydrogen fuel cell and the availability (today) of a zero-emission
(all-electric) fleet vehicle (see the MIT January/February Technology
Review
).

BILL KING


Belchertown, Mass.

Matt Bivens leaves out the single most effective method of reducing
dependence on fossil fuels: increased taxes on all types of fossil fuels
(with tax rebates/credits for low-income households). History shows that
the only truly effective way to reduce consumption of any good is to
raise its price. Increased fossil fuel taxes will get all businesses and
consumers to look hard for energy efficiency and alternative sources of
energy. Look at the gasoline tax in Europe and then look at the types of
cars people drive. Taxes on fuels will drive innovations in efficiency
and alternative sources of energy more directly and efficiently than
subsidies. Increased taxes will also reflect the true environmental
costs of fossil fuels, something the "market" does not do now.

JOHN MATTAR


Sarasota, Fla.

Here in Florida (one of the most pesticide-polluted states in the
nation) it is almost impossible to produce your own electricity with
photovoltaic cells because it is too expensive. FP&L, the bandits
making electricity, using a very polluting plant, don't want it to
happen. Until March 18 you couldn't have a system because it was
prohibited, prohibitive and you couldn't connect to the grid. Now you
can, but it takes an investment of about $40,000. We subsidize the
polluters while the program that offered about $16,000 back to people
installing a solar system will not be renewed.

Florida's governor, like his brother, is not an environmentalist. The
only reason he doesn't want drilling along the coast of Florida is that
it would be bad for tourism. I hope they will drill along the
coast, as close as possible to the pristine beaches. Maybe then people
will wake up and abandon their SUVs (Stupid Ugly Vehicles) and start
thinking about the legacy they're leaving their kids. (I just exchanged
a minivan for a Toyota hybrid.)

Like most of the country, we are having a drought, but no one wants to
force new constructions to install water caption from roofs with
cisterns. My roof will collect 90,000 gallons of water a year, more than
my wife and I need, with enough left over to irrigate our fruit trees.
The stuff we do to our earth is crazy. Future generations will curse us
all the way to hell, with good reasons.

JEAN RENOUX


Lincoln, Ill.

Matt Bivens's article is a "breath of fresh air." With Texas leading
the way in windpower plants, and several states following, I am anxious
to see the results of the two wind plants that are on the drawing board
here in Illinois. To a citizen in a small community of 15,000-plus
residents, this seems like a logical and safe way for our state, and our
country, to get our energy. The obvious worry is of the reliability of
wind to keep the turbines going, but with the billions upon billions the
government spends on slowly killing us all, I think we should take a
chance on it.

JOSH BRUNS


Shoreline, Wash.

Your cover graphic perfectly illustrates the behavior of most
Americans regarding energy consumption/consumer habits. They're addicts.
It says that the masses of Americans indulge in an orgy of consumption
while engaging in a level of collective denial that would delight a
totalitarian regime. Every day I see them: overweight Americans (usually
alone) sucking on cigarettes and gobbling Big Macs while they careen
down the ever-expanding highways in their gas-guzzling,
pollution-belching SUVs. They're often waving American flags--their
statement to the world that they are somehow entitled to binge on the
world's finite resources.

As Bivens points out, we have the knowledge to take another path, of
energy independence, a much cleaner environment, a more sustainable
economy, lives saved, other countries not exploited, wars averted--but
one of reduced profits for the few in power. There's knowledge but lack
of will. And such is the denial of the addict who lies, cheats, exploits
and is hellbent on self-destruction. Such is the tragedy of the America
that is unfolding in the twenty-first century.

GLENN REED


BIVENS REPLIES

Washington, DC

Please follow the advice of Boro Malinovic, and check out the Externe
research project he cites. There you'll read: "A major EU-funded
research study undertaken over the past 10 years has proven that the
cost of producing electricity from coal or oil would double and the cost
of electricity from gas would increase by 30 percent if external costs
such as damage to the environment and to health were taken into
account."

So, this study backs up a key assertion
of my article: Renewables are already cost-competitive, provided the
market gets the prices right. Unfortunately, our market doesn't get the
prices right, and instead subsidizes oil, gas and coal with billions of
dollars of tax breaks and pork funding out of Washington, and less
directly, by shifting to you and me the financial burden for illnesses
and property destruction caused by pollution.

The text then asserts that "nuclear power involves relatively low
external costs due to its low influence on global warming and its low
probability of accidents in the EU power plants. Wind and hydro energy
present the lowest external costs." In other words: Even if you use a
very forgiving methodology that assumes no nuclear accidents,
wind power still beats nuclear power. Malinovic and Externe are
too boosterish in arguing the low probability of nuclear accidents.
After all, we have repeatedly heard since 9/11 that terrorists may hit
our nuclear plants. And a Chernobyl comes with a helluva price tag.

Even without acts of malice, our fleet of reactors is aging poorly.
Perhaps Malinovic and Externe are unaware of the spate of nozzle cracks
at reactors across America that have the NRC frightened; or of the
six-inch hole discovered in the reactor vessel head at Ohio's Davis
Beese nuclear power plant, where boric acid had eaten through the
reactor roof. Yes, in March Ohio was three-eighths of an inch from a
chain of possibilities ranging from bad to meltdown. A "vanishingly
small probability of accidents"? Then let the nuclear industry buy its
insurance on the open market like the rest of us instead of wheedling it
out of the government like a bunch of Soviet-era factory directors.

Malinovic worries about solar power's "large amounts" of toxics, like
cadmium and selenium. Irresponsible nonsense. (Whenever a nuclear-power
booster frets about "solar-power-generated toxic waste," hold on to your
wallet.)

George Douglas of the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy
Laboratory (NREL) puts that into perspective. Even if we got a whopping
20 percent of our energy from solar power, he says, we would still come
nowhere near to using as much cadmium for that as we do now in cell
phone and digital videocamera batteries. In fact, cadmium we now toss
away in the form of dead or obsolete rechargeable batteries can instead
be recycled into solar panels--where it will sit, inert and safe, for
the thirty-year life of the panel. Bottom line: Toxics are already out
in the world, and dealt with routinely at levels many times that
produced by solar power production. Malinovic is welcome to pursue his
concern about cadmium proliferation and launch a campaign to mandate
background checks and five-day waiting periods for purchasing cell
phones. Perhaps next he will tackle a far scarier menace: the highly
toxic and occasionally explosive mix of sulfuric acid--which eats
through skin and clothing--with lead dioxide plates and molded
polypropylene, otherwise known as the car battery, an institution that
will dwarf, for all time, all hazardous-material disposal problems
associated with solar power.

Josh Bruns is hopeful for wind but worried about its being an
intermittent power source. This is a drawback for both wind and solar
power. But as John Turner of NREL observes, we could use solar-generated
electricity to zap water and create hydrogen--which is another way of
saying we are technologically prepared to store electricity. The
hydrogen generated by wind farms at night could be poured into fuel
cells by day, and the fuel cells could churn out electricity for
everything from cars to factories. (I gratefully accept Turner's
correction and update of the figure I cited from the UCS.) It's also
worth noting that we have a grid that mixes electricity generated from
all sorts of sources. So as the EPA has observed, a kilowatt-hour of
solar PV capacity at work represents somewhere from 1,300 to 5,000
pounds of CO2 kept out of the air each year.

Bill King says there are zinc/air battery-powered buses on the road, and
that's a fine thing. But he is incorrect in asserting there are no
fuel-cell vehicles; in fact, fuel-cell-powered buses are everywhere,
from California to Chicago to Vancouver. (The January/February
Technology Review has tons of articles about the rise of the fuel
cell; nothing about zinc/air batteries.) The municipal bus is a very
specific animal, however: It doesn't go fast, it has lots of room for
monster engine structures, and no one minds plugging it in for several
hours overnight. The real test will be personal autos, and the industry
and science consensus is that fuel cells are the next step. King is
correct in noting the debate over where the hydrogen comes from. Will it
be made from water by wind-powered electrolysis? Someday, yes, but later
is better than sooner for the oil-and-gas oligarchy. Will it in the
meantime be made from hydrocarbons like methane and natural gas?
Probably, because, again, that suits the oil companies. Will this happen
at a factory--with resulting hydrogen pumped to filling stations and
then to cars--or will it happen on board the car itself, with methane or
natural gas pumped into the tank and then "re-formed" to hydrogen?
Either way, harvesting hydrogen from natural gas or methane creates
carbon dioxide pollution. But it creates far less than burning gasoline
in internal combustion engines, it doesn't create other automobile
exhaust pollutants, and it's still a huge step toward the
wind-and-sun-fueled emission-free car.

I appreciate the ire of Jean Renoux and Glenn Reed and the tax argument
of John Mattar. It's good to be pissed off about these things. We are
paying extra for the privilege of being made sick; we should demand a
refund. But where I part ways with the left is in condemning SUVs, or
thinking of ways to make people do what we want by taxing them. There's
a much more positive argument to make: Charge the oil and gas companies
and nuclear power utilities the full cost of their revenue-generating
activities. Let them pay for at least some of the asthma hospital bills,
the catastrophic nuclear accident insurance, the cleaning up of uranium
mine tailings and for honest-to-goodness post-9/11 security along
pipelines, at refineries and at reactor facilities. Phase those charges
in at the right pace, and you'll see a pretty smooth market-driven,
job-creating transition to a twenty-first-century, clean,
terrorist-proof energy infrastructure.

MATT BIVENS

Renewables are coming on strong, despite fat subsidies for oil and coal.

To the January ritual of reflecting on the old year and looking to the new, add the "top five" list of various 2001 nuclear events put together by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

It was a mistake--and a beaut--in Matt Bivens's piece "The Enron Box" where he confused the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers. It is hereby duly acknowledged and regretted. But what really astonished us was the way it unleashed a slick triple play by the Right-Wing Conspirators (a Class C club that plays the Washington-New York corridor). You've heard of Tinker to Evers to Chance? Well, this was Wall Street Journal to The Weekly Standard to Fox News's Brit Hume. The WSJ caught Bivens's blooper; then The Weekly Standard grabbed amd waved it long enough to say "Nyah, nyah" before Brit (Mr. Inside) Hume gobbled up the ball and hinted darkly of cover-up (or something) on Fox News. This dazzling play illustrates how the opposing team will seize on a minor miscue and use it to clear George W. Bush of any involvement in the Enron scandal. OK, we admit the error shows we are sometimes sports-challenged; next time we'll check with a baseball expert like George Will. Lest the real issues be lost out in right field, however, we bring you a comment on Bush and baseball posted by the witty sportswriter Charles Pierce, a commentator on NPRs Only a Game and the author of Sports Guy: In Search of Corkball, Warroad Hockey, Hooters Golf, Tiger Woods, and the Big, Big Game. He posted it on Jim Romenesko's Media News (www.poynter.org):

"As to The Nation's unfortunate collision with the national pastime--the passage ought to read:

'When George Bush co-owned the Texas Rangers with a bunch of businessmen who had all the real money, construction began on The Ballpark At Arlington, after the ownership group finagled the eminent domain laws in order to swindle some property owners out of the market price for some valuable land. The property owners sued and won, but The Ballpark arose anyway, enabling Mr. Bush to cash out his original investment several times over without ever having done any actual work. This helped launch the successful portion of his political career, culminating in his becoming President of the United States, a job from which he took an evening off last spring in order to be the guest of Kenneth Lay for the opening of Enron Field in Houston. Mr. Lay was CEO of Enron and a well-known political supporter of the president who, these days, of course, would not recognize him from a box of turnips.'
"The Nation, I am sure, regrets the error."

Indeed we do.

The Department of Energy has hit upon a new idea for nuclear waste clean-up: just leave it there and declare the area a wildlife preserve. The animals won't complain.