Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

We have indeed become a country of shallow solutions. The catalytic converter was going to solve the problem, and it did reduce the green skies of California. Now windmills and solar panels are going to solve the problem, while China fires up one coal plant a week. All in an attempt to hide the fact that we have indiscriminately defoliated the planet. We seem to be stuck in a progression from stupid to more stupid solutions to our problems. Cut down trees to speed up winter run off, to build houses where they will get flooded in the spring. If foliage and tree growth are the cilia and the lungs of the earth, we are in deep deep doo-doo.

James L. Pinette

Caribou, ME

Nov 30 2009 - 2:33am

Web Letter

After reading Bill McKibben's take on Al Gore's recent book, I can see there is a glaring omission by both of these fine people in their plans and hopes to make our world a better place. It concerns the lack of a way to make renewable energy economically viable.

First of all, we need Feed-in Laws/Feed-In Tariffs (FITs), as in Germany. FITs work better than any other system designed to date for getting lots of renewable energy sources installed at the lowest real cost, and they also integrate nicely into Keynesian stimuli, job creation (at core, FITs are just a job-creation policy, not an environmental policy) and energy-efficiency programs. These separate the price of renewable electricity from the price of nonrenewables, which may or may not be related to the cost of electricity production form these nonrenewables. And in this age of financial insecurity, where increased financial risk has lots of costs, FITs are just what the doctor ordered.

One of the virtues of renewable energy is predictable energy production costs. But in much of the US, and especially NY State, the electricity pricing is based on fossil fuel prices, which are inherently unpredictable, and becoming more so as the effects of peak pil/peak natural gas get more pronounced. Tying renewable energy pricing to fossil fuel pricing is just plain lunatic, unless you want to hinder the development of renewables, in which case it's just plain brilliant. For technologies with wind turbines, there is essentially no fossil fuel component in their operation and maintenance or capital repayment (the largest cost component)--so why should the price of renewable electricity be tied to the price of coal or natural gas?

Many well-meaning environmentalists try the subterfuge approaches: "money for nothing" trick of cap and trade, "carbon (dioxide) credits," "carbon (dioxide) offsets" and, above all, subsidies for renewables based on bribing the über-rich with tax deductions and tax credits. These don't work that well; "better than nothing" is just not good enough. These, as well as sufficient CO2 pollution taxes (how about the Stern's "social cost of fossil fuel combustion waste products" value of $85/ton for fossil fuel derived CO2), raise everybody's electricity price. Why not just raise the price that renewable generators receive to a cost of production plus a reasonable profit rate, leaving the prices of electricity made by polluters (nukes and fossils) in the dirt-cheap and low-profit range. As fossils/nukes are phased out by replacement with renewables, prices for electricity will gradually rise to an unsubsidized value, so that electricity consumers are paying the real, full price for this very valuable and useful energy. The FIT strategy of dispersing the extra cost (or extra benefits) of nonpolluting electricity among all consumers of electricity on a per-unit of energy consumed basis encourages energy efficiency, and rapidly develops renewables on a lower cost per unit of energy produced than the tax subsidy and quota system used in the US and Britain. Maybe this way, people could actually get a job... which is really not that probable with the current subsidy systems in the US, and especially to the extent needed.

We need to double renewable energy installations every year in the US for the next 6 years. For wind, this means going from eight GW/yr to 128 GW/yr (up to a rate of from $250 to $300 billion a year in largely private investment) within the space of five years, and then staying at this level for another ten. You will find that during this interval, the amount of electricity needed will increase significantly, as we will need to replace the natural gas used for home and commercial heating with electricity. Anyway, with about $2.5 trillion invested in wind in the next thirteen years, no more need for coal, oil and natural gas burners as well as nukes. Adding in sufficient short term resiliency via pumped hydro and longer term resiliency via reducing CO2 or N2 with hydrogen (from wind turbines and a bit of water) to make storable fuels will also make lots of jobs, require lots of investment and make for lots of new businesses.

But, that won't get done without FITs. Try doing that with the existing tax subsidies (PTC/MACRS)... and you would further bankrupt the federal government, since about 70 percent of the cost to install wind (about $2 billion per GW of capacity) gets rebated to the investors--but those must be rich enough to use them. Thus, the existing wind subsidies (solar ones are even more grotesque) would mean that a $2.5 trillion of investment in the next thirteen years results in $1.75 trillion in less taxes paid by the upper 2 percent of the income distribution. That's really cute. I doubt that even those folks even will have sufficient "tax appetite" to accommodate a decent renewable energy buildout.

The other reason such investments can't happen without FITs is the need for a sufficiently secure investment. The centerpiece of FITs is a twenty-year fixed price for the energy produced--thus, a known cash flow, and a defined ability to pay back the investment over the twenty-plus years that these systems will be operating. This allows the renewable energy investments to be amortizzed over a long time (twenty-plus years), and with lower cost capital and lower interest loans (due to low financial risk). Making electricity prices connected to fossil fuel prices (a central feature of "competitive" and "deregulated" electricity markets like NY's NYISO) means that future electricity prices are unpredictable, and thus investments based on repayment of loans and capital via sales of electricity is really risky. Prices will lunge from excess during oil and natural gas price spikes to the pits, where no new generation plant investments are justified--as in 2009, where average electricity prices for generated power in much of NY state have has been three cents per kilowatt-hour.

So, no Feed-In Law, no renewable energy installations of any significance, let alone what is required. It's that simple. Maybe that is why so many enviros who are so well meaning just seem to radiate stupidity when it comes to replacing nonrenewables in a prompt and economically viable manner. If environmentalists would focus on FITs (which would also lead to massive job creation in the millions just in the US ) instead of moaning and groaning about coal use (been there, done that, and it doesn't seem to do much good, but, if it chimes your bells, go for it), something might get accomplished. But when crunches come, and people are left with the lose-lose proposition of either no electricity- or coal-derived electricity (since renewables can't be installed because loans for them are too financially risky/the cost that the energy is made at can't compete with coal-derived electricity, even at an $85/ton of CO2 pollutant tax), people will choose coal (and natural gas is not a long-term option-- way too scarce, and once it thermally equilibrates in price to oil, way too expensive--and it is also a CO2 polluter). There is not much future to a lose-lose choice, though in the short term it does avoid freezing to death in what passes for winter these days.

Oh well, so much for trying to inform a public that seems to go out of its way to remain butt-ugly ignorant with respect to renewable energy. Well, I expect no less for the MSM... after all, they tend to be bought and paid for by the highest bidders--in this case, the nukes, fossil fuelers and their Wall St buddies. When will progressive media step up and do the right thing? Got any ideas? Say, within a decade, once it is officially too late? Questions, questions, questions.....

Dave Bradley

Buffalo, NY

Nov 25 2009 - 10:28am

Web Letter

I am waiting to see the responses to the confirmation of massive fraud that has done so much to undermine the position of those who pretend that human activity is driving solar warming.

If they just try to ignore it, their position will fall apart.

Once again, the Internet has shown the potential to correct the mainstream media.

John D. Froelich

Upper Darby, PA

Nov 24 2009 - 5:17pm

Web Letter

The climate change movement seems to be filling a void for those who have a need for blind faith in a set of unprovable tenets but who are not attracted to the usual suppliers, e.g., Christianity , Islam etc.

Similarly the climate change movement apes religion in its credo of self flagellation--"I am a poor , unworthy sinner who must suffer for my sins"--"I am a poor unworthy polluter who must suffer for my carbon emissions."

And in the intolerance towards nonbelievers the parallels are uncanny. Nonbelievers are infidels who are unworthy of respect and will burn in hell. Nonbelievers are evil conspirators who are in the pay of the oil companies and should be banned from airing their views.

While their followers do as they say the preachers do as they do with the certainty that no matter what their transgressions they can receive forgiveness, whether the absolution is through confession or carbon offsets.

The earth's climate will continue its path with no consideration for our fate. Humankind will adapt or perish as we head through this warming interlude before the onset of the next period of glaciation.

While everyone is free to embrace their personal belief system, there has to come with that embrace the humility to treat the beliefs of others with equal respect and reverence. When a movement looses this perspective it becomes a negative force--undermining its credibility and its message.

My own beliefs? As H.L. Mencken said , "The urge to save humanity is always a false front for the urge to rule it." And in response to that my way forward is, to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, "not to be on the side of the majority but to escape finding myself in the ranks of the insane."

Pauline Mott

White Rock, British Columbia

Nov 21 2009 - 4:01am

Web Letter

First, a gigantic Thank You to 350.org for their part in building and demonstrating, globally and locally, the public will that in turn builds political will.

Second, despite also recognizing Al Gore's tremendous work (thank you), I do want to ask him to do more. I want to ask him to do more in one specific area, which I feel "our choice" leaves out even more than it does in the general how-to-build-political-will area.

On the Rachel Maddow show, in expressing his optimism regarding climate and energy legislation in the Senate, Gore told Maddow: "There's much more dialogue and progress behind the scenes than is visible publicly." Shortly thereafter, in the same context, he winked at her, as a further indication of encouragement and optimism.

But when speaking the words "behind the scenes," Gore should have winced, not winked.

The current paradigm that takes behind-the-scenes negotiations (see "The Waxman Report: How Congress Works") for granted and sees these as a necessary legislative condition is surely one of the central problems in translating public will into political will.

For citizens to have a chance at being the informed public on which our democracy depends, we need to know what changes are made to bill versions, what those changes mean, who made them and why. This would seem a perfect fit for Gore's interests at the cutting edge intersection of democracy, technology and equality.

Finally, another big Thank You to the Congressional offices and the NGOs who have enabled real progress on this issue of transparency in 2009. But so much more is needed. We need to go far, quickly, on this issue.

Paulina Essunger

Putney, VT

Nov 20 2009 - 3:11pm

Web Letter

Most discussions, as the present, contain the unexpressed assumption that everyone wishes to avoid the disasters that extreme climate change will cause. Note, I wrote "extreme" climate change, because many of us realize that under the best of circumstances we shall have changes that will cause droughts, flooding, much suffering. Whether we have already passed the point of no return on extreme change seems to be unanswerable.

Most on the left assume, I think, that the delays and excuses for not having done anything serious about the fact of global warming come from greed and ignorance. Certainly, among our corporate rulers those qualities are well represented. Their are others, I believe, who are well informed and who do believe that disasters of drought, flooding, famine, disease are coming and will be evident in a decade and pronounced in a few decades.

With the great threat in prospect, how can there be so much complacency among the ruling elite of our country? I don't think it is complacency. Years ago, an executive of one of our large chemical manufacturers told me, his tongue loosened by several martinis, that environmental pollution is not important because most of us live too long and don't know what to do in our old age. I think the same attitude prevails about climate disaster: there are already far too many people on the planet, and disasters, famine, disease that would kill a billion people would not be a bad thing.

I think that among the corporate elite, the American ruling class, the failure to deal with global climate change realistically does not come from disbelief. I think they believe it but do not find the consequences unacceptable because they believe that there are too many people anyway.

In the disasters to come, major portions of the earth's human (and animal) population will die. The well-informed in the ruling class have a view today that is parallel to that of the exec I mentioned: the earth's population is too great.

I called this sort of thinking "Realwirtschaft." It is a companion to Realpolitik, which drives our imperialists. They go hand in hand and are the real underpinnings of our government's policies, towards global warming and global hegemony.

Alvin D. Hofer

St. Petersburg, FL

Nov 20 2009 - 1:49pm