Thursday, March 26, 2009

Obama Knows

If you haven't noticed, the stock market has made quite a rally in the last 2 weeks. The Dow bottomed just under 6500 and today it's heading to 8000. That means that the Dow has gone from being valued at close to 45 cents on the dollar just 2 weeks ago, to over 55 cents on the dollar today.

For Obama's sake, and for the sake of all the rest of us who have mothers with retirement plans, we can only hope that the bottom has been reached and we can now begin to see the equity market rebuild itself. Sure Citibank is still trading under $3.00 and General Electric is barely over $10.00. Given that Citi was at 30.00 a year ago, and GE was close to 40.00, the fall of these once mighty stocks is dramatic.

General Motors is up over $3.00 today, certainly better that the 1.27 it hit early this month, but miles away from the $25.00 it traded at last March. Bank of America is trading around $7.00, well off of the $42.00 price it fetched last March.

Yes, the carnage on Wall Street looks like a medieval war scene. Giants have fallen. And even though a lot of folks, really really rich folks have been, and to some degree still are sitting on the sidelines waiting to buy the bottom, there are legions of folks who have left their shirts, pants, and panties in that dark canyon of capitalist excess.

When I hear Obama speak of returning to growth and building the economy, I can't help but feel a little empathy for him. He's a smart guy. He knows well that we must change.

And he even says it when he speaks of moving to a sustainable economy.

But what is a sustainable economy?

This piece from the Oil Drum says it pretty well.

Toward a New Sustainable Economy
Robert Costanza [University of Vermont, USA]

The current financial meltdown is the result of under-regulated markets built on an ideology of free market capitalism and unlimited economic growth. The fundamental problem is that the underlying assumptions of this ideology are not consistent with what we now know about the real state of the world.

The financial world is, in essence, a set of markers for goods, services, and risks in the real world and when those markers are allowed to deviate too far from reality, “adjustments” must ultimately follow and crisis and panic can ensue. To solve this and future financial crisis requires that we reconnect the markers with reality.

What are our real assets and how valuable are they? To do this requires both a new vision of what the economy is and what it is for, proper and comprehensive accounting of real assets, and new institutions that use the market in its proper role of servant rather than master.

The mainstream vision of the economy is based on a number of assumptions that were created during a period when the world was still relatively empty of humans and their built infrastructure. In this “empty world” context, built capital was the limiting factor, while natural capital and social capital were abundant.

It made sense, in that context, not to worry too much about environmental and social “externalities” since they could be assumed to be relatively small and ultimately solvable.

It made sense to focus on the growth of the market economy, as measured by GDP, as a primary means to improve human welfare.

It made sense, in that context, to think of the economy as only marketed goods and services and to think of the goal as increasing the amount of these goods and services produced and consumed.

But the world has changed dramatically.

We now live in a world relatively full of humans and their built capital infrastructure. In this new context, we have to first remember that the goal of the economy is to sustainably improve human well-being and quality of life.

We have to remember that material consumption and GDP are merely means to that end, not ends in themselves. We have to recognize, as both ancient wisdom and new psychological research tell us, that material consumption beyond real need can actually reduce well-being.

We have to better understand what really does contribute to sustainable human well-being, and recognize the substantial contributions of natural and social capital, which are now the limiting factors in many countries.

We have to be able to distinguish between real poverty in terms of low quality of life, and merely low monetary income. Ultimately we have to create a new model of the economy and development that acknowledges this new full world context and vision. (clip)

The role of government also needs to be reinvented. In addition to government’s role in regulating and policing the private market economy, it has a significant role to play in expanding the “commons sector”, that can propertize and manage non-marketed natural and social capital assets. It also has a major role as facilitator of societal development of a shared vision of what a sustainable and desirable future would look like. (clip)

The long term solution to the financial crisis is therefore to move beyond the "growth at all costs" economic model to a model that recognizes the real costs and benefits of growth.

We can break our addiction to fossil fuels, over-consumption, and the current economic model and create a more sustainable and desirable future that focuses on quality of life rather than merely quantity of consumption.

It will not be easy; it will require a new vision, new measures, and new institutions.

It will require a redesign of our entire society.

It will require a New Economy.

And I don't doubt that Obama knows.

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art courtesy of Gretchen Michaels

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Store It

Many years ago, while I was doing a lot of regulatory work at our State's Public Utility Commission, I was chatting with a former commissioner and now lobbyist. "You know what you folks need, you need an an affordable battry" she said.

That kind of talk always wrinkled me wrong.

I would argue that Solar and Wind, although intermittant in their production patterns, were quite predictable, every bit as predictable as the electric load itself, and besides, why should renewables be held to the higher standard of being a complete electrical system on their own anyway? Base load plants need intermediate plants and peaking plants. Moreover, even though they have value because they run all the time, that is also their weakness.

We can't use our nuclear plant to balance our renewable energy base. But you can use intermediate and peaking generators for that purpose. (You can back down coal plants too if you want)

I would argue that natural gas is our "battry" and a dang good one at that. And for large penetrations of renewables of up to 50%, the existing electric utility fleet should work just fine to balance and match the somewhat variable (but predictable) base renewable supply with the highly variable, and somewhat predictable load.

And therefore, Madame Commissioner, us folks don't need a battry.

But what about large penetrations of renewables, where we go beyond the use of carbon altogether?

Well, we need a battry.

Not a battery in the usual sense, we need a solid state device that stores energy as effectively as a flash drive stores information. It needs to charge in seconds and it needs to be efficient. And, it needs to last a really long time, capable of tens of thousands of charge discharge cycles.

There has been a lot of good news on this front lately. For example, researchers at MIT have invented a lithium ion battery that recharges ultra-quickly, opening the possibility of charging an electric car in the amount of time it now takes to fill up a gas guzzler.

Even last decade's favored technology, nickel metal hydride, is dramatically improving.

And every week it seems, some lab somewhere is making steady steps in developing ultracaps and nanocapacitors that will some day make the photonic energy web a reality. Initial results show that MIT's nanopores "can store 100 times more energy than previous devices of its kind. Ultimately, such devices could store surges of energy from renewable sources, like wind, and feed that energy to the electrical grid when needed.

They could also power electric cars that recharge in the amount of time that it takes to fill a gas tank, instead of the six to eight hours that it takes them to recharge today."

These are all significant developments. But what about something truly advanced, something that can really change the landscape?

Like a magnetic spin battery.

Spin Battery:
Physicist Develops Battery Using New Source Of Energy
Mar. 12, 2009

Researchers at the University of Miami and at the Universities of Tokyo and Tohoku, Japan, have been able to prove the existence of a "spin battery," a battery that is "charged" by applying a large magnetic field to nano-magnets in a device called a magnetic tunnel junction (MTJ).

The new technology is a step towards the creation of computer hard drives with no moving parts, which would be much faster, less expensive and use less energy than current ones. In the future, the new battery could be developed to power cars.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

The device created by University of Miami Physicist Stewart E. Barnes, of the College of Arts and Sciences and his collaborators can store energy in magnets rather than through chemical reactions. Like a winding up toy car, the spin battery is "wound up" by applying a large magnetic field -- no chemistry involved. The device is potentially better than anything found so far, said Barnes.

"We had anticipated the effect, but the device produced a voltage over a hundred times too big and for tens of minutes, rather than for milliseconds as we had expected," Barnes said.

"That this was counterintuitive is what lead to our theoretical understanding of what was really going on."

The secret behind this technology is the use of nano-magnets to induce an electromotive force. (clip)

"The possibilities are endless", Barnes said.

Indeed they are.

Once we realize our true condition, and the power of the enlightened mind, humankind can end its dependence on the dead life forms that we presently use to power our days. We can move to an economy and world where we are no longer mining the earth, but harvesting the light that surrounds us.

And we will store it.

And the hundred year oil war

Will End.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Doing It

In my work, I'm pretty much at ground zero when it comes to developing renewables. I seek out wind leases, look for good solar land, commission transmission studies, look at new and developing solar manufacturing processes, and I help with communications if the need arises.

Most recently, the latter has been the case.

As I told someone last week, we (the Utility) are building the largest solar plant in the United States, perhaps the fourth largest in the World (this week), and it's beginning to feel like it.

Austin is a pretty cool city. We own our own utility and it is well known as a progressive utility. We have the nation's most successful green pricing program, we have a great green building department, and our energy efficiency division has given us more than a coal plants worth of savings over the years. And, we are looking to achieve another coal plants worth of efficiency in our present planning horizon.

The City Council of Austin is a good one. Our Mayor talks of the importance of meeting the challenge of climate change, and he has even taken Al Gore's training, thus enabling him to do the Inconvenient Truth presentation with all those great slides and pictures.

Several years ago, in the spirit of moving towards meeting the challenges that face us all, Council gave the Utility some marching orders with some targets for overall renewable percentages, and some hard targets for solar.

One of these targets was 15 MW of solar by 2007.

We didn't make that.

Even with one of the most aggressive solar rebate programs in the country, in which the Utility buys down the cost of your rooftop solar system by 4.50 a watt, we have barely amassed 2 MWs with the program.

So, we decided to be sure to make the next Council goal, (30 MWs by 2010) by placing a 30 MW PV plant on land that we own, and is inside our control area. (so there are no transmission issues).

After putting out the RFP, our purchasing folks sifted through the bids and they selected a San Francisco developer who was bidding Chinese product. The price we got, given the location and solar insolation available at that location was pretty good, at least as far as solar goes.

So, the Utility took the project to Council.

Now, even though Austin is sometimes called the People's Republic of Austin, it still has more than its fair share of big energy users. And even though they would like to project an image of clean and green, they also care about their bottom lines, especially in a time where bottom lines are looking redder and weirder.

And even though the cost of this plant was about 60 cents per month per residential customer, the costs to the big customers, the really big customers, looked like real money.

Consequently, just a day before the Council was to move on this issue, a Councilmember announced on TV that he was going to ask for a delay. And he got it. Since the bid price had a time certain on it, that delay could only go so far, so the plant approval was pushed back for several more weeks.

Now, the thing that captured my attention was the public dialogue.

We had several activists and activists organizations who were there to support the project and of course, we had the company who won the bid speaking favorably. But, then we had the Building Owners Management Association, some big chip makers, the big hospitals, and some computer makers opposing the plant.

We even had certain parts of the Renewable energy crowd opposing the project because the panels were Chinese, or because it wasn't on rooftops, and thus, it was just another Utility attempt to frustrate distributed generation.

And of course, we had nut balls. One insisted that we must go nuclear, even to the point of jumping out of his seat seconds before the final vote, and stepping to the podium to address the Council one more time just to assure everyone that if there was any doubt that he was off his rocker, those doubts can now be tossed.

In the end, the largest solar plant in the United States was approved last Thursday. The big guys got a victory with a last minute motion by a councilmember who is running for Mayor requiring that the energy of the plant be marketed on some kind of green tarif. The big guys also got a new planning venue that will be added to the two other citizen commissions that have planning jurisdiction over the Utility.

But the point is this, the plant WAS approved, even in these uncertain times,

Because of the one thing that is certain.

Humankind must quit thinking as if everything is still OK.

It is not.

Methane is rising.

Seas are rising even faster than expected,

and they are becoming more acidic.

The climate change time bomb is ticking,

with scientists predicting a six degree C rise in temperature,

all the while worrying if we can survive a 2 degree rise.

We all need to boldly deal with the challenge of Climate Change

And we cannot and should not postpone a moment longer.

My town has shown its mettle.

We are doing it.

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