The Importance of Energy

Energy is vital to the prosperity of communities and society as a whole. There were 253 million registered passenger cars and trucks on the roads in the United States in 2014. In 2016, there were estimated to be over 207 million smartphone users in the United States, which is estimated to above 257 million by the year 2020. In 2009, there were over 100 million air conditioners in US homes. All these commodities take energy, and in the case of air conditioners and cars, a significant amount of energy. In 2013 the United States consumed 12,988 kWh per person. According to the US Census, in 2013 there were about 317,200,000 people living in the United States. This means the United States consumed about 4,119,793,600 MWh of electricity in 2013 alone.

With these numbers in mind, it would not be a stretch to say that the United States’ standard of living rests heavily on its access to energy. Dr. Charles Hall, a researcher in systems ecology and biophysical economics, goes as far as saying that the “American Dream” was created due to the United States’ access to energy, most notably pointing to the use of the spindletop, an oil drilling tool, in 1901 as one of the most important economic events in the United States.

When it comes down to it, our access to energy is inseparably tied to our energy policy. This highlights the importance of sound energy policy in the United States, as well as the state of Colorado. In order to sustain a high standard of living, energy policy must be conducive to greater and greater access to energy.

What is the Environment Worth?

This is a difficult question that doesn’t have an answer that we could possibly calculate. There are a lot of variables to consider. First off, we would need to define what the “environment” is and what it means to destroy an environment. However, I do not find this question worth delving into in huge depth here so we will define the “environment” with a simple connotative definition of the natural sphere. So in some kind of way, national parks, undeveloped land, and communities of non-human species are all how I define the environment in this context. Also, to destroy the environment means to alter it in any kind of way that would have not been able to have been done without human influence. So constructing a building or any kind of development would be considered destroying the environment. These are not set definitions, and what the “environment” is and isn’t and how you protect it is up for a lot of interpretations. However, in this case I am going with this simple definition of the environment.

Now that we have a definition for what the environment is, we can think about its value with better boundaries. We must keep in mind, though, that there is no blanket value to the environment. A natural desert area is part of the environment, but it is not as valuable as say a natural hot spring to us or to a larger diversity of species. So if we were to say the entire environment conglomerated together was worth 100 trillion dollars (just a made up value), it wouldn’t be right to apply this value equally among square feet. So if there were 10 trillion square feet of natural space conglomerated, you couldn’t simply say that each square foot was worth $10, as some pieces of land would probably be more valuable than others. Like said before a natural hot spring or aquifer is probably more valuable than a piece of desert land.

However, this implies that the environment has a finite value, though to many people I talk with it doesn’t seem they believe this. It seems like many people think the environment has an infinite value. Meaning that all human development is wrong, and that we should always favor environmental protection over development. No matter what, you should not drill oil and any oil drilling is inherently evil.

I hope that the people that hold these beliefs are not reading my blog… or any blogs for that matter. If they were, they would be committing a huge atrocity in their own world view (not mine). They would essentially be sacrificing something of infinite value for something of finite value. They would essentially be making everyone on this Earth immeasurably worse off, as they would be using energy of a finite and calculable value to read my blog. I unfortunately have to admit that my blog is probably incredibly low on the value scale and is most likely not even in the top 75% of most valuable things (if you could even measure what the MOST valuable things are). However, you the reader right now are forfeiting something of unquantifiable value for something that is relatively low value. How dare you!?

How dare you own anything or even develop a smidgeon if you think the environment is of infinite value? There is nothing else on Earth that has infinite value, not even a human life. You might look at that and be shocked, but my reasoning is simple. Imagine that a human life has infinite value and is in danger of some kind. The only way to save this life, for some weird and bizarre reason, is to kill of every bear, fox, and wolf in the world. Is it worth it? Is killing off every bear, fox, and wolf worth saving a single human life. If a human life has infinite value, the answer here is absolutely yes, as a bear, a wolf, or a fox does not have infinite value.

To relate this example back to the environment. If the environment has infinite value and is in danger because of humans, would it be worth it to kill off every human in order to protect this thing of infinite value?

I think it is clear to see here that the environment, just like everything else that has ever existed, does not have infinite value. That means it must have some kind of countable value. However just like the value of a human life, it would be difficult to ever know what this value actually is. We know the value exists, but we cannot put an exact number on it.

Though, I think it would be easier to learn the value of something in the smaller scale. I think you would be able to get a rough estimate of the utility and value of a marshland on a community through certain practices. Even this is impossible though if there is no kind of market price that can be set for these natural spaces.

I will expand on this idea in future blogs, but this is your food for thought. How could you determine the value of a natural space? And how could you determine if development is worth the degradation of an environment?

Middle Earth Time: Comparing the Age of the Earth to the Lord of the Rings Movies

What if we were to compare Earth’s historical time to Middle Earth’s movie runtime? If we were to compare these two and put them side by side, at what point in the movie would you be during the KPG extinction (the event that killed off most of the dinosaurs)? Think of this like Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar. Except instead of a calendar, it is all the Lord of the Rings movies, and instead of the history of the whole universe, it is just the history of the Earth.

So to start out, we need to know how long both are in order to create a conversion rate. The Earth has been around for 4.6 billion years (4,600,000,000 years). If we were to put all the movies together and cut out all the end credits, the movies run for 10 hours, 26 minutes, and 59 seconds. In seconds, it runs for 37,619 seconds.

(Note: I am using the theatrical version for Fellowship, but extended versions for Two Towers and Return of the King because it is all I could find)

With these numbers, for every second that passes in the movies, 122,278.6355 years pass in Earth time. For every year that passes on Earth time, 8.178043×10-6 seconds pass in the movies. Another way to write this is 0.000008178043 seconds pass.

(The links will take you to Youtube clips of the specific scene I am talking about)

As the Earth has finished forming, our movie begins. The screen is black and about to show the New Line Cinema logo. For several hundred million years the Earth is being bombarded by a shower of meteors. In movie time, the meteor bombardment lasts for about 1 hour and 20 minutes.

As the bombardment stops, Elrond is in a private meeting at his home with Gandalf, and says “men? Men are weak.” Time continues on Earth until we get to the formation of the oldest sedimentary rocks we have ever found (3.9 billion years old). At this time in the movie, Bilbo is grabbing Frodo’s hand as he is saddened that the Ring has tempted him again (1 hour and 35 minutes into Fellowship of the Ring). This is right after Bilbo makes the scary face at Frodo.

Fast forward in Earth time to the first eukaryotic cells, and in the movies we are already at the Battle of Helm’s Deep in the Two Towers. The orcs are firing a ballista at the wall (this is shortly after Gimli asks Aragorn to toss him during the battle).

Fast forward even more to the first mammals and dinosaurs on earth, and we are already well over 3 and a half hours of Return of the King! Frodo and Sam are already inside of Mount Doom, and Golem is attacking Frodo as he is invisible and is about to bite his finger off.

By the time of the KPG extinction (when most of the dinosaurs go extinct), the Ring is already destroyed, the hobbits have already gone home, and Frodo is finishing Bilbo’s book with the words “Bilbo’s story is now over. There would be no more journeys for him.”

The first hominids (our earliest ancestors) come in on the scene of Earth time, but Sam is just closing his gate with his family behind him. There is only seconds left in the film. As “The End” enters the screen in movie time, homo sapiens make their first appearance, the earliest know cave art is found, Julius Caesar was killed, China built the Great Wall, World War 2 was fought, and everyone you and I have ever know were born. The screen fades to complete black, and we are now back at current Earth Time.

Here is a graph of all the time stamps and a direct comparison between Earth time and the movie times:

lotr-time-graph

What if we got rid of fossil fuels immediately?

Just as a hypothetical, what if we decided to pack up all oil, gas, and coal developments and go home? What if we decided that we have had enough of fossil fuel pollution, and decided to outlaw the practice of drilling and mining fossil fuels, as well as selling it. I don’t mean a slow transition, but an immediate shift. The purpose of this is to put into perspective what our energy needs and energy market looks like today.

Let’s start with how much energy is consumed and where it comes from. Below is a table created by the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing by energy source how much is being consumed. The units are represented in quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTU).

primary-energy-consumption

In case you didn’t know, a BTU is a lot like a calorie, in that is how much energy is needed to raise a specific amount of water a specific temperature. In the case of BTUs, one BTU is the amount of energy needed to raise one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. The average household uses about 263.5 million BTUs a year. Compare this number to the amount of BTUs consumed by the United States in a year (specifically 2015), which is 97.344 quadrillion BTUs. To show you the scope of these numbers, I want to write them out fully for you.

The average household consumes 263,500,000 BTUs a year.

The United States in 2015 consumed 97,344,000,000,000,000 BTUs.

This is clearly massive, but how much of it is from fossil fuels? According to the EIA, 79.330 quadrillion BTUs of energy consumed in the United States comes from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum). This means about 81.5% of our energy consumption in the United States comes from fossil fuels! About 8.6% comes from nuclear energy. 0.44% comes from solar power, and 1.8% comes from wind power. With all the renewables together (wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass), the number is about 9.7% of our energy consumption.

These numbers should be enlightening. It means that today we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and based on the shear amount of energy we get from it, it will be difficult to shift. However, if it were to be an irresponsible and immediate shift, we could assume that we would be 81.5% the energy we demand! This would be gas lines like in the 1970s, and huge electricity shortages across the nations.

To us that live relatively comfortable lives, blackouts don’t sound like big deal. We have dealt with blackouts in snowstorms or ferocious lightning storms. But think of the hospitals need that power to save lives. Think of the 911 responders that now will be without communication. Think of the families that need to refrigerate life-saving medication. Think of all the food that will go bad. Think of the traffic lights in busy cities that will no longer work. Think of the people that live in dire cold environments that will struggle to keep themselves warm. Think of the people that live in dire hot and humid environments that would no longer be able to keep themselves cool. These are all life-threatening situations, and as of right now, oil, gas, and coal are the reliable and cheap energy sources that make it so these things do not happen.

If we were to hypothetically remove fossil fuels altogether, we would fix these problems eventually, right? We would probably be hard at work constructing nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams, and digging for geothermal energy, but all these endeavors require a lot of energy to do! It takes a lot of energy to construct massive concrete towers for nuclear reactors. It takes a lot of energy to build massive concrete dams or even to get the materials to the rivers in the first place. All of this development for these alternative energy resources would require a lot of energy we wouldn’t have because we have removed fossil fuels entirely. How would we have enough energy to fix this problem in the time we needed it? People would undergo incredible suffering and death while waiting for this solution to come, if it ever could come in time.

To give you a concrete example of this, Southern Australia tried kicking out oil and gas recently. They decided to become reliant on wind energy, unfortunately for them wind is not an incredibly reliant form of energy. The wind doesn’t always blow. Because of this prices would spike up to $14,000 a megawatt hour in Southern Australia, and have averaged around $360 a megawatt hour! Compare this price to other areas in Australia that pay around $90 a megawatt hour. Supply in energy dropped in Southern Australia and prices skyrocketed. Since then, Southern Australia has begged natural gas plants to resume operation.

Getting rid of fossil fuels in one swoop would be terrifying! But so many young people today truly believe that we should immediately introduce legislation in states to get rid of oil and gas. Luckily, I don’t believe this is a widespread belief, but one that I have come across enough to feel like I should write this post. Every time I come across this idea, I can’t help but face palm harder and harder.

And to be clear, I am not saying we couldn’t ever live in a prosperous world without fossil fuels. I am simply saying that is not our world today, and it will not be our world for many days to come. We demand a huge amount of energy, and right now, our current renewable energy sources are not appearing to be the panacea we need.

Do We Know Enough About Energy Policy?

Energy policy can be really boring to most people. Energy policy combines a lot of technology and science issues with socio-economic and political issues, which creates a complex relationship. Within this complex relationship, there is a lot of published data, ongoing research, and political work-arounds.

Furthermore, its topics don’t grab young minds like drug policy or foreign policy. I suppose oil and gas is not as sexy to think about as the implications of joints and bombs. I get it. Well, I understand you, but I don’t agree with you.

However, something that became clear to me when I became more interested in energy policy is that almost no one seems to understand it even a little bit. It is like there is a complete black out of knowledge among Americans when it comes to our energy policy and interests. This surprised me because energy policy is so important. It effects everyone in the United States no matter what. If you are reading this blog, you are using energy to read this blog and to keep the servers up for this blog. We all have lights to turn on. We all have vehicles to ride in, whether it is our own car, a bus, or an Uber. Our lives, our planet, and our standards of living are all in wedlock with the energy policies of the nation.

Many friends of mine were fascinated with the Standing Rock protests, which how could you not be with the terrible brutality those protesters had to go through. Yet, very few of these friends had much of a coherent clue of what it was they wanted. They didn’t know how much pipeline had already been built in the United States (around 2.5 million miles), and why this was decided as an effective method to transport oil and gas. They didn’t know what alternatives there were to a pipeline, and they didn’t really know where this pipeline was being placed and who had ownership of this land. However, these to me were minor lapses of understanding. I mean besides industry leaders and top policy wonks, who could really give you the amount of pipeline built in the US right off the top of their head? (Me. THAT’S WHO!)

The most egregious misunderstanding is that many of them truly believed we could live in a world without fossil fuels right now. That we could simply pack up our oil, gas, and coal operations, and there would only be minor complications. This is laughably ignorant, and it is such a widespread idea among college students! Even students at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which is an engineering and science school! I don’t want to get too bogged down on this specific point and will devote a post on its own to this topic, but looking at the primary energy consumption data posted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration should help clear up this fable. Looking at the amount of energy produced in total from 2015 (97.22 quadrillion BTUs) compared to the amount of energy produced by renewables, which includes hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass, in 2015 (9.450 quadrillion BTUs), it is clear that renewables have a lot of work to do before we can completely throw away fossil fuels. Getting rid of oil and gas outright would clearly cause widespread shortages, which means immense suffering among people that need electricity right now (think hospitals, 911 responders, etc).

And my anecdotal evidence of my friends is not the only evidence I have for people being grossly ignorant on energy policy issues. Americans have been historically really bad with energy policy.

In 1978, two thirds of Americans polled thought that a nuclear power plant accident could result in an explosion like Hiroshima. Furthermore, this was around the same time that James Bridges’ movie, The China Syndrome, came out, which claimed that during a nuclear power plant melt down, the fuel rods would be so hot that they could burrow all the way to China. People watched and, presumably, believed this movie.

In 1977, 52% of Americans polled by Roper answered that they thought solar power would overtake foreign oil imports in the next 5 years, and 16% thought that wind power could do it. Yet here we are, still importing foreign oil 40 years later.

In the 1970s, a majority of Americans thought that the gas lines and energy shortages were due to oil companies greedily hiding their oil somewhere out of the United States so that they could sell oil for higher prices! As if the instability in the Middle East (particularly Israel and Egypt), environmental regulations, and inflation played absolutely no roles in rising oil prices!

But perhaps, people are smarter now. All these examples are from the 1970s, and after 40 years, perhaps the public became wiser. I will delve into this question on future blog posts. I have to get you to come back to my blog somehow!

 

(The historical polls referenced in this post all came from Eric R.A.N. Smith’s book Energy, the Environment, and Public Policy, which can be bought on Amazon here)

Being a Good Samaritan

The United States suffers from a problem of drug overdose from illegal substances, whether it be underage drinking or the use of heroin. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), between 2001 and 2014, deaths due to cocaine overdose increased by 42%. In 2014, death due to heroin exceeded 10,000. Rose Rudd, Noah Aleshire, and several other authors from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), described the United States as “experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose (poisoning) deaths. Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137%”. Furthermore, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that out of the 94,200 respondents (all under the age of 21), 15.9% self-reported that they had engaged in binge drinking in the last 30 days.

These numbers are staggering. Why has there been such a sharp increase in overdose deaths recently? How can so many underage individuals be getting their hands on alcoholic beverages? While there are many hypothesis to answer these questions and a proven answer may never be known, that does not mean that there aren’t ways to combat these numbers.

The War on Drugs has a long history in the United States from the institution of prohibition in 1920 to Nixon coining the term “War on Drugs” and declaring it in 1974. Yet, even with this long fight against drug use, we still see drug use climbing, and we unfortunately see overdoses increasing as well. So perhaps tighter prohibition would not be the solution to this overdose dilemma, but ending prohibition (meaning legalizing cocaine, heroin, etc.) does not yet seem to be an option a wide majority of Americans are willing to accept, making it a politically infeasible goal for now. According to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll, only 11% of the thousand respondents wanted to legalize cocaine, 9% supported legalizing heroin, and 8% supported legalizing methamphetamines.

With this in mind, the current best and most feasible solution to decreasing the current drug overdose problem in the United States is to push for reform in good samaritan laws. Good samaritan laws comes in a lot of different variations such as freeing medical professionals or private citizens from liability if they try to help someone that is in immediate danger. However, this could go further to protect those in danger of overdose. With reform, people that call emergency services or seek medical attention for someone in danger of an overdose (or alcohol poisoning in the context of underage drinking) should be immune to any kind of criminal or civil punishments in the context of the event. For example, if there are teenagers that are drinking underage and one is suspected of being in danger of alcohol poisoning, the other participants should be immune to any kind of punishments should they call 911 to assist their friend. This could also be said about those that are using illicit substances. Furthermore, this law needs to be upheld unflinchingly and be well known in order for it to serve its purpose.

The strongest counter-argument for this proposal, and one that is quite common among prohibitionists, is that this could encourage drug use. If people know that they could use drugs and get out of a situation safely if an overdose were to occur, this fact would incentivize people to use illicit drugs.

Even if this were true, the main purpose of this law is not to decrease drug use, but to decrease deaths due to drug overdose, which is the problem we are facing in the United States. Furthermore, some states, municipalities, and universities have already instituted similar ideas of good samaritan laws. According to Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Cornell University Instituted this form of good samaritan ruling in 2006, and not only found that there was a major increase in emergency calls, but that there was also a fairly constant rate of alcohol use on campus. Several states have also instituted good samaritan laws, like North Carolina, which is specifically for underage drinking, and California, which institutes this kind of reform fully, and neither of these states has seen a drastic increase of use after this kind of reform.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the #1 cited reason for people not calling 911 in the case of an overdose is the fear of criminal punishment. Since this is the case, it is clear that the only feasible way of alleviating death due to overdose is to ensure immunity of punishment through medical amnesty.

Nuclear Energy: Why Does Colorado Have None?

With the first nuclear reactor, Tennessee Valley Authority’s Bar Unit 2, being connected to the grid on June 3rd since 1996, nuclear energy may be making a comeback. According to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in 2006, the US produced more than 60% of the world’s nuclear energy production with 103 nuclear reactors, all of which were created before 1996. Compared with all other forms of energy sources (fossil fuels and renewables), nuclear energy sources makes up 20% of electricity generation in the United States.

With Colorado ranked 6th in natural gas production and 7th in total energy production, it would be expected that Colorado would be one of the leaders in nuclear energy production, especially with it being emission-free in production. However, Colorado falls completely flat on this expectation, as it currently does not have any nuclear power plants. Colorado is one of twenty states that does not have a nuclear power plant.

This hasn’t always been the case. Colorado use to have a nuclear power plant, named Fort St. Vrain, near Platteville, Colorado which was built by General Atomics Company and owned by the Public Service Company. The station began construction in 1968, and started generating electricity for the grid in 1976. The station was an early prototype of a high temperature, gas cooled reactor (HTGR). It was the first commercial reactor for electricity to use this gas cooling method, and one of four early HTGRs that used a thorium fuel cycle. All four that used this method have been shut down. According to Tony Kindelspire, writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, “problems plagued the plant from the start.” The plant was shut down in 1989, and has since been made into a natural gas plant.

So why doesn’t Colorado have a nuclear power plant now? In the United States, nuclear power is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), but under the Agreement State Program, which Colorado is one of them, the NRC will relinquish portions of its regulatory jurisdictions to the state. However, a lot of regulatory power is still retained by the NRC. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, Colorado is not one of fifteen states that has regulations or laws against nuclear energy development or production. So it must not be regulatory barriers holding back Colorado’s nuclear potential.

This must mean it is just not economically feasible to create such energy in Colorado. Perhaps it is that the market currently does not favor this kind of production naturally, and energy producers should look elsewhere for energy production.

Nuclear power plants are actually pretty expensive to build. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, costs rose from 2002 to 2008 from between $2-$4 billion to around $9 billion. However, the cost for the new Bar Unit 2 reactor was at $4.9 billion, and expects to add 1,150 megawatts to its grid. Compare this to the Rush Creek Wind Farm proposed to be built in eastern Colorado which costs $1 billion dollars, plus an additional $443 million accumulated from taxpayers from Production Tax Credits (PTC), and can only produce 600 megawatts if winds were blowing at exactly the correct speeds for 24 hours a day.

While the power plants might be quite expensive to build, the use of nuclear power plants to generate power is relatively cheap. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, “in 2015, the average total generating cost for nuclear energy was $35.50 per megawatt-hour.” Furthermore, if the plant had more generating units per plant the price could get considerably lower. Compare this to wind energy, which has a generating cost around $40 per megawatt-hour, nuclear energy has cheaper generating costs.

Below is a graph provided by Energy Information Administration comparing the generating cost of different energy sources. Take note that the numbers represented are millions per kilowatt-hour, the hydro-electric category consists of both conventional hydroelectric and pumping storage, and the gas-turbine section is a conglomeration of gas turbines, internal combustion, wind, and photovoltaic. The cost is a total of fuel cost, operation cost, and maintenance cost. The full graph can be found here.

EIATotalGeneration cost

 

If it is the case that nuclear energy is simply too expensive to be a feasible method of producing electricity then so be it. However, it is evident that markets in Colorado are currently unfairly favoring wind and solar energy through subsidies and tax credits. Thus making it unclear if nuclear energy is truly unfavorable in the current market or is just being crowed out by government intrusions on the market. Perhaps skewed markets are the reason we do not see any nuclear power in Colorado. It is a question worth addressing.