Webinar: Nuclear power, after Fukushima

I hate to paraphrase a terrible sexist joke but when it comes to nuclear power, I sometimes feel like we can’t live with it and we can’t live without it.

There are lots of reasons to worry about nuclear power. No. 1 may be cost. As I noted last weeka recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists tallied up the costs of government support for nuclear power from uranium mining to waste disposal, and it concluded that “subsidies to the nuclear fuel cycle have often exceeded the value of the power produced. This means that buying power on the open market and giving it away for free would have been less costly than subsidizing the construction and opera­tion of nuclear power plants.” Those costs, if anything, will only get higher because of the added scrutiny that the nuclear accident in Japan has brought to the industry.

And yet…without preserving and expanding nuclear power as an energy source, it’s extremely hard for me to see any path towards the low-carbon future that we need. As Robert Bryce, the author of Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Ruels of the Future, once put it, “If you are anti-carbon dioxide and anti-nuclear, you are pro-blackout.”

These issues, and more, will be the topic of a live webcast on Wednesday June 29, 3 PM ET / 12 PM PT, presented by The Energy Collective, a website about energy and climate. I’ll be moderating. Registration is free and available here.

We’ll be talking about the following issues: [click to continue…]

Charge it! The challenge facing electric cars

With all the dismal environmental news of late–from the nuclear crisis in Japan to the Republican attacks on EPA in Congress–it will be a pleasure this week to turn my attention to one of the most exciting developments on the sustainability front: the arrival of electric cars in the U.S.

To be sure, the sales figures so far for the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are tiny–Chevy sold 281 Volts in February and Nissan sold fewer than 100 Leafs–but both vehicles are, for now, available only in limited quantities and locations. What’s more, there are few places outside of their homes for owners to charge the cars.

On Thursday, I’ll be moderating a free webinar on the charging issue for The Energy Collective. It’s called The eMobility Challenge: Electric Cars and How to Keep Them Charged, it’ll be held at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, and your can sign up here. We’ll take questions from listeners throughout the hour. Here’s info on details and panelists:

Electric vehicles offer a major opportunity for more energy-efficient transportation, as well as reduced dependency on carbon-producing fuels. However, the cars themselves are only half the solution. We must create a new charging infrastructure to get those cars the power they need. [click to continue…]

Libya, Egypt, energy and the environment…

What will the civil war in Libya, revolution in Egypt and political turmoil elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa mean for the U.S. economy, energy prices and the environment?

If you’d like to hear the insights of a couple of smart energy experts, join me on Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET for a free webinar organized by The Energy Collective. My guests will be Kevin Book of Clearview Energy Partners and Geoff Styles of the GSW Energy Group. Both write frequently, intelligently and clearly about energy and energy policy.

Below is more information about the webinar. If you have questions you’d like me to ask Kevin or Geoff, please add them to the comments here or email them to me at marc.gunther@gmail.com. We’ll also take questions during the conversation. [click to continue…]

Natural gas: friend or foe of sustainability?

Most environmentalists would cheer the discovery of cheaper ways to generate electricity from wind or solar power. They would lament the news that prices are dropping for dirty fuels like coal or oil. But what about natural gas? Are abundant supplies and low prices for natural gas good for the environment–or not? Is natural gas a “bridge” to a clean energy future? Or is it a detour?

That’s the topic of a free webinar that I will moderate on Tuesday, November 30, with natural-gas experts Geoff Styles and David Hone at The Energy Collective. To register, click here.

These aren’t hypothetical questions, of course. Natural gas supplies are growing and prices are down. As The Walt Street Journal reported last year:

A massive natural-gas discovery… in northern Louisiana heralds a big shift in the nation’s energy landscape. After an era of declining production, the U.S. is now swimming in natural gas.

…Huge new fields also have been found in Texas, Arkansas and Pennsylvania. One industry-backed study estimates the U.S. has more than 2,200 trillion cubic feet of gas waiting to be pumped, enough to satisfy nearly 100 years of current U.S. natural-gas demand.

Some people will tell you this flood of natural gas will displace coal, and thereby reduce carbon emissions. This was the theme of a recent [click to continue…]

Beyond the meter: a smart grid webinar

What will the new energy grid look like?

Who owns the data about electricity usage?

What companies will find value in that data?

Those are among the questions that I’ll be exploring with a panel of experts on Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET in a free webinar called Beyond the Meter: The Next Generation SmartGrid. The conversation is sponsored by The Energy Collective, a website about energy and the environment where I’m one of the lead bloggers, and by GridWeek 2010, a conference about the smart grid coming next month to Washington, D.C.,

I’ll be joined on the call by:

Christine Hertzog is a consultant and author focused on navigating the electricity ecosystem of emerging technologies and markets. She is the author of the Smart Grid Dictionary, which explains terminology used by utilities, regulators, manufacturers, and more. Christine has two decades of experience helping companies deliver competitive and cost-effective solutions, and frequently speaks and writes about the challenges and opportunities that Smart Grid solutions bring to the evolving electricity supply chain.

ImagePaul Camuti is President of Siemens Corporate Research, where he is responsible for the Information & Automation Technologies Global Technology Field cluster and is an avid spokesperson for technologies that fall under this domain. Before joining SCR, Mr. Camuti headed the Chemical & Pharmaceutical Industry business for Siemens Energy & Automation, Inc. Paul is a member of the advisory board at the University of California-Berkeley’s College of Engineering, the advisory council of the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the Siemens Foundation board.

ImageWes Sylvester is Business Development Manager for Smart Grid at Cisco. Previously, he served as Director, Distribution Solutions and Smart Grid at Siemens Energy, Inc. Wes has been a representative on both GridWise™ and EPRI’s IntelligridSM, where he serves as chair of the Intelligrid Technology Transfer Committee. He is also member of IEEE PES.

I invite you to join us, and to submit any questions that you’d like to see answered about the smart grid to me directly at marc.gunther@gmail.com, or in the comments here.

Next steps: Climate action and green business

Under the category of shameless promotion of self and friends, I want to call your attention to three upcoming events where I’ll be asking questions of some very smart people.

Tomorrow (Tuesday, January 26), I will be moderating a webinar for my colleagues at The Energy Collective called Is Global Action on Climate Change a Pipe Dream? Breaking Down What Was (Or Wasn’t) Achieved at COP15.

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Next Thursday, February 4, I’ll be in San Francisco to join my colleagues at Greenbiz.com, led by executive editor Joel Makower, at their annual State of Green Business Forum at the PG&E Auditorium.

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The following Tuesday, February 9, Joel and I and the Greenbiz crew will reconvene for a State of Green Business Forum at the Chicago Mart Plaza.

Here are some details:

We’ve got a great panel for The Energy Collective webinar, which is free of charge. Robert Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Kennedy School at Harvard, as well as director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. Prior to Harvard, Stavins was a staff economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. You can read one of his thoughtful blogposts about Copenhagen here. Aimée Christensen is an activist and consultant who’s worked in government, business, law and the nonprofit world on climate, human rights and development issues. She’s now got her own company, Christensen Global Strategies, which advises corporate, governmental,  and non-profit clients seeking to address the global challenges of climate change, ecosystem degradation, and resource scarcity. Her clients have included the Clinton Global Initiative,  Swiss Re, the United Nations Development Program, Virgin United, and Wolfensohn + Co.  Our third panelist will be Dirk Forrister, managing director at Natsource, a leading carbon finance company. Dirk previously worked for the Clinton White House and the Department of Energy, so he knows the Washington scene.  We’ll begin our conversation at 1 p.m. ET, and allow plenty of time for questions from the audience. You can register for the event here.

In San Francisco and Chicago, after Joel Makower and Greenbiz release their annual State of Green Business report, we’ll spend the day talking about where green business is going with an impressive array of business leaders. In San Francisco, they will include Carl Bass, the president and CEO of Autodesk, Rob Bernard, chief environmental strategist for Microsoft, entrepreneur and MacArthur fellow Saul Griffith, Rich Lechner, v.p. of energy and environment at IBM,  Rick Rommel, who leaders emerging businesses for Best Buy and Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials. (Van Jones, the former White House green jobs czar, is also on the SF agenda, but he will be appearing by telepresence from Washington, D.C.) In Chicago, we will be joined by David Baum, president of the Baum Realty Group, Jim Davis, executive director for sustainability at SAP, Donna Ducharme of the Delta Institute, Rich Lechner, Sonia Medina, U.S. country director for EcoSecurities, C. David Myers, president for building efficiency at Johnson Controls, and Richard L. Sandor, chairman and founder of the Chicago Climate Exchange, among others. To register for either event, or obtain further info, visit the State of Green Business website. We’ll be talking about these topics:

Carbon Management After Copenhagen: How are companies considering carbon now that the Copenhagen summit is behind us? Hear how companies are viewing carbon as a strategic issue, implementing sophisticated new accounting schemes, realigning their products and processes, and preparing to compete in a low-carbon economy.

Green Marketing in the Age of Radical Transparency: In a world in which vast amounts of information are available about companies and products, the rules of green marketing have changed. Today, companies must respond to green ratings and rankings from websites, media companies, nonprofit organizations, and big players like Walmart. In a world where consumers have unparalleled access to data about products and companies, how does a company truly be seen as green?

Can IT Solve the World’s Problems? The information technology sector is responsible for 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but its impact on the other 98% is growing rapidly. Hardware, software, and service providers are creating new products and services that are enabling large and small companies to better measure and manage their environmental impacts.

When Green Business Meets Cleantech: It used to be that green business and clean technology were separate realms. No longer. Today, the two are converging, as global companies and start-ups alike are harnessing clean technology as the foundation for a new generation of green business opportunities. The result are some unlikely corporate players and alliances.

On a personal note, it’s been about a year since I began working with The Energy Collective and Greenbiz. Robin Carey at TEC and Joel Makower and Pete May at Greenbiz are great partners, and their support for my writing makes this blog possible. So, thanks guys!

Let’s have a grown-up debate about climate change

If, like me, you have been confused, frustrated, dispirited or all of the above by the health care debate in Congress, get ready for more as the U.S. Senate prepares to take up climate-change legislation. The stakes are high. The debate will not be high-minded.

Expect opponents of mandatory carbon regulation to distort the science and economics of global warming, predicting an economic catastrophe if the bill passes, even as environmentalists promise a green-jobs nirvana and warn of an environmental catastrophe if it doesn’t. The fact is, any meaningful effort to regulate carbon will carry real but not catastrophic costs for businesses and consumers  – that’s part of the point, to raise the price of burning fossil fuels – and that the transition to a clean-energy economy will be disruptive, under the best of circumstances. Solar-power manufacturers in China will gain at the expense of coal miners in West Virginia. That makes the politics of the bill a challenge, but so be it.

images-1But if we acknowledge that passing a climate bill will create costs, we also need to recognize the costs of inaction will likely to be far greater. If you doubt it, read Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, an excellent report, written in plain English, about the likely impacts of climate change. Catastrophe is probably not too strong a word to describe the environmental impact of business as usual.

While the congressional debate will focus on science, economics and politics, the climate-change issue is fundamentally about our legacy. Are we willing to make sacrifices now — maybe even painful sacrifices — to better the world for future generations?

If you want to learn more about the upcoming congressional debate, I invite you to join in a webinar on Wednesday, September 30, at 1 p.m. ET, called Climate Legislation in the U.S. Senate. It’s organized by The Energy Collective, a website about energy and climate that brings together some of the smartest ideas and opinions on the Internet.

Panelists at the webinar will be Manik “Nikki” Roy of the Pew Center on Climate Change, a politically-savvy Washington insider who’s been tracking the climate issue for years; Michael Zimmer, an attorney and energy policy expert with Thompson Hine, also in Washington; and Jesse Jenkins, director of energy and climate policy at the Breakthrough Institute. I’ll be moderating. [click to continue…]

Watthead: In defense of big government

I’m on vacation this week, making my first trip to Israel where I’m visiting my aunt, a pioneer of the Kibbutzim movement. But I can’t shake off my Internet addiction, alas, and so I came across this response from Jesse Jenkins, AKA Watthead, to one of my blogposts last week bemoaning the Obama’s administration’s ever-increasing intervention in the economy. (See Uh-Oh: Obama’s Battery Gold Rush. Jesse responded at The Energy Collective, where the two of us blog.) Jesse, who works for the Breakthough Institute (and not the Breakthrough Collaborative as I said last week), believes that significantly more R&D spending from the government will be required to speed up the clean energy revolution. He’s thought a lot about this, and he’s also looked carefully at  the Waxman-Markey climate legislation now making its way through Congress, so I thought I would post his response here, with some minor edits. It’s well worth a look, and for those of you who care about energy policy, be sure to check out the links provided by Jesse.

I’ve spent the past two weeks digging deep into the Waxman-Markey ACES climate bill, peering beneath rocks and shining my flashlight into its dark recess to figure out what it will and will not do.  You can find that analysis at the Breakthrough Institute site here, and I highly recommend you take a look so you can get an accurate picture of what this “light touch-high impact” carbon pricing policy will actually accomplish.

The short answer: not very much at all.

The carbon price the bill will implement is likely to be between $12-20 per ton for the first decade-plus, according to the EPA analysis of the bill.  That’s about 12 to 20 cents per gallon of gasoline, which on the low end is about as much difference as you can find between different gas stations on two sides side of town, and on the high end is lost in the noise of seasonal variation in gas prices.  If you have little faith in the power of government, then I challenge you to explain how that kind of meager price signal is going to shift private investment and dramatically transform the $1.5 trillion combined U.S. energy and transportation markets.  Please, tell me a convincing story about how that might work, because after spending two weeks reading the Waxman-Markey bill, I could use some more uplifting news.

The reason the CO2 price will remain so low is because the bill allows up to 2 billion tons of offsets (up to 1.5 billion which may be sources from overseas) to be used in lieu of cutting emissions here in supposedly ‘capped’ sectors.  That’s enough to legally permit U.S. emissions to continue to grow at business as usual rates through 2030. So Waxman-Markey gives us no real “cap” on carbon and no significant price on carbon.  Forgive me for looking for other ways to directly spur the transformative clean energy innovation we need — ways you may consider unfortunate degrees of “government intervention.”  Given what’s at stake after all…

Also, as a kind of test to consider: many European nations have had gas taxes for decades that implement an effective carbon price in the hundreds of dollars a ton range ($2-5/gallon tax = roughly $200-500 per ton of CO2 equivalent carbon price!).  So with such a powerful signal for private investors to develop alternative fuel vehicles, why haven’t firms in Europe invented and commercialized electric cars?  Why isn’t everyone in Denmark driving EVs, one might ask?

The answer is because that’s not really how innovation works.  Price signals alone do not spur adequate innovation.  There’s a multitude of market failures at work, especially in the energy innovation sphere.  I have a paper coming out in about two weeks which I’ll share with my readers and the The Energy Collective community that spells out a lot of these market failures (prelude: knowledge spillovers, very high capital barriers and non-differentiated commodities are three big barriers to sufficient private sector innovation investments).  These are the kinds of market failures, which when combined with clear public imperatives for change, simply demand more active government engagement with innovation and industry than we all may find ideal.

For now, I’ll again challenge the typical assertions that private entrepreneurialism and investment (and the proper price signals) are all that’s required to spur transformative innovation by pointing you to my publication, “Case Studies in American Innovation: A New Look at Government Involvement in Technological Innovation” [PDF] for examples of how active federal government engagement and investment paved the way for so many of the technologies we now take for granted, including microchips, personal computing, the Internet, commerical aviation and jet engines, gas combustion turbines, nuclear power, wind power, solar power, etc.  Take a look and see why I’m not as skeptical of the role of government as you are.

Finally, as a (mostly) side note, since you cite Tesla Motors targeting luxury car markets with their electric Roadster as a reason they should not receive federal incentives: the reason Tesla is starting with a $100k electric luxury car is because new technologies are routinely more expensive at their launch.  If there isn’t a market for early adopters, the technology will never reach the economies of scale and spur the learning by doing (and continued innovation) that drops the price and improves the performance of the technology over time.  Think flat screen TVs or cell phones: the first ones are far more expensive than most can afford.  But now these technologies have reached economies of scale that drove dramatic price reductions and the technologies are affordable and (because of that) ubiquitous.

Tesla is looking to use luxury buyers – who routinely pay more for the cool new thing – to drive those initial economies of scale. They plan to produce the Roadster on a scale of 1,000s and at a cost of $100k.  Their next model will use the same (and now cheaper) components and batteries at a larger scale and will be a luxury sedan selling for around $60k and at a scale of 10s of thousands.  They then plan to produce a $35-40k sedan at a scale of 100ks per year, if all goes well.  That’s just smart.  Please don’t use that as a reason not to incentivize their technology’s development with public investment.  If the government were willing to directly purchase batteries and serve as the early adopter themselves — as we did for microchips, radios, radar, lasers, early computers, and jet engines — we could bring this emerging technology to scale and down in price much more rapidly and pave the way for the kind of dramatic private sector innovation that occurred AFTER the government purchasing (and loss-leading) dropped these technologies in price.  In short: we should be seeing far more direct public investment in the technologies to enable electrified transportation, not less.

Marc, I challenge you to wrestle with the history of innovation in a real honest way, and look for the role of government engagement in these technologies.  The energy innovation imperative is simply too critical to leave to well-established (but quite inaccurate) myths about the infallibility of private sector innovation and the supposed ineptitude of any government engagement in the market.  If the financial crisis taught us anything, I’d hope it was that we should revisit those myths with a pretty damned critical eye, eh my friend?

Creative destruction & me

During one of my morning runs this week, I was listening to the Slate Culture Gabfest on my iPod shuffle, where Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner were having a lively conversation about Twitter, when it struck me: This is a digital media moment to remember.

I’m a big fan of podcasts. I enjoy Slate’s Political Gabfest as well as the Culture Gabfest, This American Life, the occasional Fresh Air and Frank Deford’s sports commentaries. One of my favorites is Sea Change Radio, which covers environmental and social issues from a liberal perspective. Bill Baue and Francesca Rheannon do a great job, and I’d say that even if I were not interviewed on the latest edition of the show, about green jobs. I’ve also learned a lot from EconTalk, a weekly in-depth podcast about economics, usually reflecting free market ideas, hosted by Russ Roberts. (Russ is also the author of The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance, a surprisingly entertaining novel about a libertarian teacher of high school economics who is smitten with a liberal English instructor.)

Why am I telling you all this? Because, although I’m as unhappy as anyone about the terrible things happening to the newspaper and magazine businesses these days, what’s often overlooked in all the laments for the decline of print journalism is the other side of the story: the explosion of ideas and (less so) information in the digital media. Just this week, Portfolio magazine closed and the Baltimore Sun laid off nearly a third of its staff. But barely a day goes by when I don’t discover a new and worthwhile blog. Twitter and Facebook point me to news stories and commentary that I would otherwise have missed. A growing number of college courses by great teachers are being put online. And of course thanks to Google, we all have access to more information at our fingertips than we have ever had before. I can barely remember life before Google.

For me, this is personal, of course. I spent more than 30 years as a writer of print journalism—newspaper and magazine stories and books. Now more of my time is spent producing digital media–not just stories and columns but podcasts and Tweets as well.  Much as I love magazine journalism (and I’m about to get to work on a story for FORTUNE), I must say that I have come to enjoy the immediacy of blogging, the feedback that I get from writing for Greenbiz.com and The Energy Collective, the chance to contribute to a fine publication like Slate. Like most people, I’m also spending more time consuming digital content and less time with print.

The economist Josephy Shumpeter called this “creative destruction,” and it is both creative and destructive–as well as fascinating and a little scary to watch as it unfolds. For the second time in a week or so, I’m going end with by quoting Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

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