Entries Tagged as 'environment'

Nuke Energy: The Next Casualty of Japan

March 17th, 2011 at 10:01 pm 12 Comments

It’s like watching a Japanese Monster B-Movie: Battered by two epically-scaled natural disasters and now a human-made emergency in the form of an ongoing nuclear crisis, the only thing missing from the unfolding Japanese scenes, it seems, is the eruption of Mount Fuji and a rubber-suited monster emerging from the summit and rampaging towards Tokyo.

The situation at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is already factoring into any number of nightmare reports and prognostications, a new and potent Japanese symbol of our collective fears about science. Fukushima is further demonizing — or monsterizing — an industry which might actually offer the only clean, sustainable energy source for a world simultaneously preoccupied with Godzilla-sized carbon footprints and climate change.

The 1979 partial reactor core meltdown at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster which set the previous benchmark for nuclear annihilation anxieties, served to curtail public and political debate on atomic energy in the United States. Not a single new nuclear power plant has been built here for decades. This unofficial moratorium came about not just because of concerns about the safety of reactor designs and the difficulties associated with disposing of waste material but also as a result of the costs. Astronomical costs.

Second-generation commercial nuclear plants like the one at Fukushima and all of the stations built in the US in the 1960s and ’70s pushed the engineering capabilities of the day further than they should have been pushed. They also shoved cost efficiency into the realms of fantasy. Generating electricity at second-generation nuclear plants costs twice what it does to produce power at oil- or coal-fired facilities. In the US as in other countries, only vast state subsidies make existing nuclear power programs possible (this is particularly true of France, dependent for almost 80 percent of its electricity on second-generation plants).

But science has changed markedly in recent years. And so has the safety and cost-effectiveness of nuclear power. In engineering terms, the fourth-generation nuclear plants now being developed are as far removed from their expensive, awkward second-generation progenitors as a B1 bomber is from the second generation of motorized box kites which sputtered over the Western Front during World War One. The technology hasn’t so much been refined as re-invented.

New designs must satisfy four essential criteria: no accident, systems failure or human error can set off a technological chain reaction culminating in the release of radioactive material; the uranium used cannot be enriched to weapon grade-level; spent fuel must be easier to dispose of than the current unwieldy and unsafe radioactive rods; and, the costs of producing electricity must be substantially cheaper than those associated with plants using fossil fuels.

There are a number of emerging reactor designs which fall under the fourth-generation umbrella. Graphite-moderated pebble bed reactors, in particular, might one day fulfill nuclear energy’s long-held promise of providing virtually unlimited, cheap and clean electrical power. Heating helium gas to temperatures of 900C to power turbines, there’s an orders of magnitude difference between the electrical generating efficiency of pebble bed reactors and second-generation water-cooled reactors.

Compact by the standards of today’s “Metropolis”-scaled nuclear plant machinery (a pebble bed reactor can fit into a shipping container), a single 200 megawatt device could power a large town. Multiple reactors run from a single site could provide a large city’s electrical supply. Enough of them could help countries in the developing world make the leap to fully developed infrastructures without becoming dependent on carbon fuels: aside from meeting their electrical needs, gas-cooled reactors would also be ideal for mass producing the type of hydrogen fuel cells which could power everything from homes to automobiles — allowing emerging economies to bypass oil and coal just as cell phones have allowed them to bypass land lines.

The technology is not entirely risk-free — no technology ever is. But as Dr. James Martin, founder of Oxford University’s interdisciplinary James Martin 21st Century School, has said, extensive use of fourth-generation nuclear power would be incomparably safer than allowing the public to drive cars.

Prototype pebble bed reactors — so-called because they use billiard ball-sized and -shaped uranium fuel elements — are being built to standards which their designers like to call “walk-away safe”. In other words, should anything go wrong, the control staff can literally walk off and a system as close to being fail-safe as it’s possible to engineer will automatically prevent a meltdown.

At a nerve-jarring 2004 demonstration for journalists, the operators of a small Chinese pebble bed reactor abruptly closed down its coolant system. And then quite literally walked away. At Three Mile Island a minor cooling system malfunction led to the near-catastrophic emergency; Fukishima is providing a real-time case study. When a cooling system failure occurs at a conventional nuclear plant, the fuel rods overheat, radiation levels spike and the nightmarish prospect of a meltdown goes from being a remote theoretical possibility to a distinct probability.

In Beijing, slack-jawed reporters watched as gauges showed the temperature in the pebble-bed reactor soaring to 1600C. Then it began to fall back to normal levels. No human intervention had taken place. None was necessary.

Each of the billiard ball “pebbles” in the reactor contained thousands of tiny, ball bearing-type uranium pellets, each sealed in silicone-carbide shells which serve as individual containment domes of sorts. The pebbles’ outer casings provide further protection. The uranium — just nine percent enriched and impossible to weaponize — is processed to slow neutron production if the reactor temperature begins to rise, automatically dampening the chain reaction. Pebble bed reactors are, in effect, meltdown-proof.

The fourth-generation technology is still a work in progress. But it’s demonstrably no longer a theory-based concept. And it’s certainly not an example of mad science as its critics — ranging from professional eco-warriors to professional lobbyists for the coal and oil industries — have claimed.

The hysterical aftershocks being produced by the Japanese earthquake are making themselves felt around the world. Nuclear energy programs are being suspended with knee-jerk swiftness and little or no forward thought. If the funding and development of fourth-generation technology is disrupted or even ended, this might prove be the second man-made nuclear disaster to result from last week’s tragedy.

Nuke Critic: U.S. Has 23 Fukushima-Type Reactors

March 16th, 2011 at 5:02 pm 16 Comments

Could a Japanese style nuclear disaster happen here?  There are currently 23 GE nuclear plants currently operating in the United States with a design that is identical to the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi installation which has been in the news. Even more troubling, many of the plants are operating past their intended 40-year operating life. This is only one of the many concerns of Henry Sokolski, the Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Sokolski’s advice for those concerned about Japan’s apparent nuclear failure is to slow down, expect the worst, and be willing to reconsider everything. In an interview with FrumForum, Sokolski emphasized that no one can possibly know yet the extent of the destruction that will be caused by the Fukushima crisis.

Sokolski has problems with both the optimists and the pessimists. He blamed media outlets and pro-nuclear politicians for jumping quickly to calm the public and hide the potential scope of the disaster. “Here in Washington, there’s lots of spinning going on. The New York Times was trying to downplay this before… but they’re not anymore,”

He also pointed out that it is still too early to compare it to a disaster such as Chernobyl, “Does it have to be Chernobyl to be important? We’ve had three explosions in three days.” Sokolski added, “It’s not Chernobyl, but it’s no Three Mile Island either.”

The scope of the disaster can’t be understated. Even the American military has taken action in response to the disaster. As of Tuesday morning, radiation dosage levels around the plant had been reported as high as 400 millisieverts per hour. A dose of 400 millisieverts per hour is generally adequate to induce mild (relatively speaking) radiation sickness after less than two hours of exposure. Sokolski noted to FrumForum that the US Navy’s aircraft carriers, which had been sent to help, had been repositioned to 100 miles offshore, ostensibly to avoid radiation danger to the sailors on board the (nuclear-powered) vessels.

Sokolski had the most to say about the potential policy implications of the Fukushima disaster, telling FrumForum that even pro-nuclear advocates are taking a collective breath about the future of nuclear power. “Everyone’s going to have to review stuff – even Lieberman’s taking a second look,” Sokolski said. He related the story of a Republican congressman who confided in him that “it’s not clear” that the House GOP caucus would still be supporting President Obama’s plan for the expansion of the American nuclear energy program, an outcome which was previously a foregone conclusion.

It is unclear how much the Japan disaster is attributable to “acts of God” and how much can be laid at the feet of “operator cock-up.” (Sokolski added that it’s increasingly looking like both.) However, there are still changes to its energy policy that America should take.

Sokolski is set to testify on the Hill on Thursday on nuclear export regulations. The US needs to make sure that anybody to whom it sells nuclear technology must be able to safely operate it. He warned that until the disaster, the US government was preparing to sell nuclear energy technology to the governments of both Jordan and Saudi Arabia, neither of which possesses adequate operational expertise.

Sokolski also quoted approvingly a speech given by John Rowe, the CEO of Exelon Energy (a large electrical utility provider), at the American Enterprise Institute. In the speech, Rowe said that of all the various problems facing the United States, energy is the one where the government would do good if it would just get out of the way, cease picking winners and losers with subsidies and taxes, and “stop telling us how to boil water.”

If nuclear power turns out to be what a fair, free market considers the best way to boil water and turn a turbine, then so be it, said Sokolski. But one gets the sense that, in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, Sokolski wouldn’t bet on it.

Follow Shawn on twitter: @shawnfs33

The Right Way to Defend Nuke Power

March 16th, 2011 at 2:17 pm 36 Comments

The tragedy in Japan has led to much criticism of nuclear energy (mostly by the left), patient attempts to defend it (mostly by the right), cheap and a lot of confused and worried people in the middle.  The accident in Japan — however serious — is not sufficient reason for us to completely abandon nuclear energy.  However, find many of the “industry pundits” defending nuclear power this week have failed to present arguments which will convince the American public.  Talking down to or talking past those who are worried about the incident in Japan won’t work.

Here are a few of the poorer arguments I’ve seen from nuclear power defenders since the Japan disaster, and my suggestions for more productive approaches:

Argument #1: “More People Died from the Tsunami and Earthquake than from the Nuclear Power Plants”

This is a red herring: true, but irrelevant.

One reason this is a bogus comparison is that we can’t control whether or not we have natural disasters, but we can control whether or not we build nuclear power plants.

The other is that the concern with nuclear power accidents is not immediate deaths, but the impact on long-term health, and the poisoning of the environment, which can last for centuries. Not very many people died immediately at Chernobyl, but eventual death totals could reach the thousands among those who were exposed. And the entire area was transformed into a wasteland.

There really isn’t a way to improve this argument, because it’s flatly fallacious. It would be better to focus on comparing the safety of nuclear to other options (see point #6 below).

Argument #2: “These Plants Used an Older Design; Ours are Newer and Better”

Again, this is true, but it’s not convincing to many people. The plants may have been old, but at one time they were new, and undoubtedly were portrayed as being the latest and greatest that technology had to offer. More modern plants are safer, sure, but they are also enormously expensive, and they require decades of use to recoup their costs. Materials and mechanisms degrade over time, and we discover things we didn’t know before. Again people will wonder: “Will we hear the same thing about newer plants being safer after a disaster in, say, 2041?”

A better approach here is to point out in terms that people can understand why and how newer designs are safer. How specifically would they prevent the problem that occurred here from happening again? What are the differences between types of fuel used in plants, methods of cooling, and safety measures? And this should be done without complex schematics and terminology, much of which even engineers and technology writers can’t always readily comprehend.

Argument #3: “The Plants Survived the Earthquake, Just Not the Tsunami”

Correct, but the designers knew from the start that they were putting the plants in an area that was threatened by tsunamis. Heck, there’s a reason why the English word for “destructive waves caused by an undersea earthquake” is Japanese in origin! Not only are tsunamis common in Japan, but the plants affected were built right on the ocean, in what appears on satellite imagery to be a flood plain. So why didn’t they have a plan to deal with what was, really, only a matter of time?

People don’t want to hear excuses. They want to hear how all of the reasonable potential risks are being addressed. Nobody expects every risk to be covered fully, but they want to know about how risks likely to a particular region will be addressed. A plant built in Kansas doesn’t need a tsunami contingency plan, but can it survive a direct hit from an F5 tornado?

Argument #4: “It’s Just Steam Releases, Not a Real Meltdown”

To most people, radiation is radiation is radiation. Also, being told “radiation was released but it’s not a real meltdown” strikes the average American about the same way as being told “you have cancer, but it could be worse.”

If there’s an important distinction between radiation released as steam and that coming from direct exposure of fissile material, then this needs to be explained to the public much more clearly. Far greater emphasis also should be placed on explaining the role of containment buildings—but not pretending that these are perfect or impermeable, because they aren’t. Discussing what we do when a serious event leads to a cracked containment vessel would be a good idea: what happens when the safety measures fail?

Argument #5: “The Radiation Leaked Isn’t That Bad”

Humans are terrified of things that are dangerous, things that can’t be seen, and things they don’t understand. Radiation is a direct hit on all three counts. When officials and pundits try to minimize the danger with hand-waving about how the radiation “isn’t that bad”, the natural reaction of most people is to get more scared.

The solution here is a combination of detailed information and education. Don’t tell people “radiation is at safe levels”. Nobody knows what that means, and it sounds sort of like “the amount of cyanide in your water is at safe levels”. Be specific. Use charts. Teach people more about radiation, how it works, and how it is measured. Compare the level of radiation released by these accidents to radiation we receive from other sources, such as the sun, to put it in perspective. And above all, be honest with people, because they can tell when you are trying to snow them.

Argument #6: “Everything Has Risks. Thousands Die in Car Crashes Every Year”

This is the nuclear power version of the classic argument in favor of air travel over road travel. It’s strictly speaking, correct; yet it ignores human nature. We are notoriously bad at risk assessment: just ask anyone who runs a lottery. We also tend to put far too much focus on splashy, attention-grabbing disasters, no matter how infrequent they are. So it doesn’t matter how rare these events are, or how many fewer people they kill than car accidents: they are newsworthy and they grab headlines.

The other problem here is that most of us do not have alternatives to traveling on the road; we do have alternatives to building nuclear power plants.

The proper approach here is a simple one: cost/benefit analysis. Don’t compare nuclear power to driving cars, but to other forms of energy production. How many people die each year on oil rigs or in refineries? Or mining coal? How about installing solar panels and wind turbines?

The same applies to longer-term issues such as health risks over time due to radiation exposure. How many ill health effects do Americans suffer from pollution due to burning coal and oil? This can even be more indirect: if a lack of nuclear power leads to a reduction in available electricity, or an increase in its cost, how many more people each year will become sick or die due to untreated conditions, lack of air conditioning, lack of access to other beneficial technology because of funds paid for electricity, etc.?

In the case of alternative energy, it is also important to explain how much power is generated by nuclear and how many solar panels or windmills would be needed to replace one plant. That adds important perspective. I hear many nuclear power opponents suggesting renewable energy options that, while often worth pursuing, are simply not feasible on a scale necessary to replace nuclear.

The GOP’s Oil Drilling Pipe Dream

March 15th, 2011 at 7:35 am 41 Comments

Here we go again. Every time gasoline prices spike, order no matter the reason, order Republican leaders and talk radio’s libertarian elite reach for the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) latest talking points and crank up the “drill, baby, drill” rhetoric.

The current uptick in the price at the pump is not actually due to a supply crunch. It is due to market speculation that current turmoil in the Middle East will spread and lead to supply problems.

The notion that the U.S., which sits atop less than 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, can drill enough oil to drive down prices if the flow is interrupted from a region with 64 percent of the world’s reserves is a pipedream.

Over the past week a steady stream of Republicans, including Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (KY), House Speaker John Boehner, and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI), have taken to the airwaves to complain that the Administration’s cautious approach to domestic oil drilling has caused this problem.

They are calling on the Administration to tap our nation’s “vast” oil reserves. Vast?

Upton even went so far as to say that high energy prices caused the recession and that the Administration’s cautious approach to domestic drilling will lead to a 1970s style oil crisis.

They all neglect to mention that the U.S. is already disproportionately depleting its scant 3 percent reserves to produce 8 percent of current global production. To get that 8 percent we currently have over 530,000 active wells. Saudi Arabia, by comparison, pulls out more oil with roughly 1,500 wells.

The map below depicts the real problem by sizing countries based on the amount of proven oil reserves they contain.

The GOP’s real energy crisis is one of focus. Republican leaders are focusing their energy on keeping America overly dependent on a resource that is far more plentiful outside our own borders. They largely dismiss the strategy of reducing demand and seem content to have us suck our own limited oil reserves dry as quickly as possible. It is a phony solution that they think will play well politically.

Peddling geologic ignorance may score some points with voters who don’t know any better, but it won’t bring the promised relief at the pump.

Their energy would be better focused on real solutions, such as diversifying our fuel choices, making automobiles go further on a gallon of gas, and finding other innovative ways to use less oil.

Of course it is difficult to offer real solutions when politics trumps reality.

The latest political sleight of hand by GOP leaders is to connect the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) effort to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants with the spike in gas prices.

Taking his cues from Upton, who is trying to pass his legislation to block EPA, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) said:

If the White House has its way — and the EPA imposes a backdoor national energy tax — gas prices will only go higher.

Someone might want to inform the Speaker that the gasoline Americans buy at the pump is made from oil, not coal.

A Conservative Case for Farmers’ Markets

March 11th, 2011 at 6:24 pm 27 Comments

Every Thursday evening, view  around 7 p.m., online I begin checking outside my side door to see if the elves have made their delivery yet.

It’s quite amazing: At one moment the brick stoop is empty. In the next, a rustic white-painted wooden box with a black lid sits waiting for me to bring it in to the kitchen.

I open it with an unfailing sense of awe and wonder.  During the previous week, the elves have been traveling all over the countryside, seeking out the freshest and most delicious things to eat. This night’s offering: some fantastically colored carrots, purple and yellow along with the more familiar orange; filets of local wild flounder, packed in ice; two young chickens, frozen. Under these lie a paper sack of all-purpose flour tied with twine; two tubs of hand-churned butter; a brown bag containing handsome-looking green beans; a scattering of full broccoli heads; and a carton of eggs.

My excitement amuses my children.  Jeez mom it’s just a box of groceries. I examine the carrots.  Compared to their ordinary supermarket cousins, they look truly odd: Aside from the strange colors, they are gnarly and thin—or wait, here’s one that is bulgy and fat.  I rinse and taste it over the sink—sweet, earthy, crunchy–the flavor you think a carrot ought to have but never does.  I offer a sample to our small carrot expert:  she agrees and eagerly asks for another.

There’s less enthusiasm for the fish. No matter: When I cook the filets the next day for their Dad and me—dusting the filets with flour, salt and pepper, and doing not much else to them except sautéing them in some butter—they will taste meltingly fresh and tender.   And as I put the two chickens away in the freezer—weekend supper—I explain to the kids that these chickens actually walked in a farmyard amongst other farm animals in real daylight. (When I get around to roasting them, my husband will be impressed that the muscles attaching their legs to their body require vigorous carving to remove.  They don’t just fall apart. “Maybe they were doing walking lunges around the yard…?” he wonders.)  The flour is unbleached and has been freshly ground in a mill, not a factory using a logo of a mill.  And the eggs have come from the same kind of aforementioned chickens.  I’m especially excited about the eggs. I’d tried my first fresh farm egg last summer, bought on vacation at a rural roadside stand:  It was lighter in texture and color than a store-bought egg, and had much more flavor.  Before then, I hadn’t ever thought much about the taste of eggs or their degrees of egginess. I’d immediately scrambled another for my mother, with whom we were staying, and who was raised in small-town Australia. Her family had kept chickens in the backyard and…

“Oh my gosh, this tastes of my childhood!” she exclaimed before gobbling down the rest of the egg.

As I finish unpacking the box, I realize that I have actually stepped back into my mother’s stories of a pre-refrigerated, pre-factory-farm world of food. She was born in 1935. Australia may have been a bit behind the modern curve by urban American standards of the time, but not by much. She remembers waking up from nightmares to the reassuring, early morning clip clop of the milkman’s horse. Like my little farm box, the fresh bottles were left by the side door and the empties removed (or what we now call “recycled”).  You had an “icebox” not a fridge or freezer—something like the ancestor of the Coleman cooler. If a fruit or vegetable wasn’t in season you didn’t eat it unless it came in a can.  Chickens were—as my mother learned—like house pets you put down less sentimentally than the family dog, and then ate. Beef was universally grass-fed and free-range; agricultural scientists hadn’t yet figured out that it would be more efficient and cost-effective to pen thousands of them together, stuff them full of corn and hormones, and let them marinate in their own manure for a few months before grinding them up into mass-produced hamburgers.

I don’t want to sentimentalize this period, obviously.  And nor would my mother.  In a time when cheap cuts of meat were less plentiful than they are today, she and her siblings were never allowed to leave the table until they had choked down their last piece of heart/kidney/liver or worse, rubbery tripe.  There are vegetables to this day I can’t persuade her to eat—squash, for example—because it was served to her as a canned watery mush when she was a child.

And yet–as I wash and put the box’s contents away–I’m struck by how much of what we are calling today the “farm-to-table” movement is really just a modern re-imagining, or re-invention, of a less industrialized time.  The elves (okay full-disclosure: they are not really elves) who deliver my weekly container work for a nascent web-based company, Arganica Food Club.   Like dozens of similar companies now popping up around the country, Arganica organizes food from regional farms for city-dweller consumption.   Every Sunday I am sent an email with a spreadsheet attachment that lists the coming week’s offerings.  Most of it is seasonal produce and locally raised meat, but amongst the suppliers are also artisanal dip- and cracker- makers, bakers, pasta impressarios, and even pre-fab homecooked meals for the time-pressed.  I check off what I want, email it back, and then the order appears on my doorstep a few days later.

These companies are a natural progression from the now ubiquitous urban Farmer’s Market: instead of waiting for the weekend—or whatever day of the week is officially declared Market Day—I can have the farmer’s market brought to me.  Not that I don’t like going to the Farmer’s Market—there are still some products I can get only there that I can’t get online (a local guy makes pastas and sauces that are to die for; ditto another stall that sells delicious cured meats).  But essentially Arganica and others are doing what even Whole Foods is now too big to do: deliver truly fresh, truly local, truly organic foods that still taste of the place they were grown in.

In that sense we have reached maybe the perfect juncture of old and new: We have the technological abilities (read: modern refrigeration, appliances and online shopping) to achieve the maximum benefit—and enjoyment—from locally grown, fresh food.  And the increasing awareness of this type of food’s health benefits have led to a growing consumer demand, one that small companies such as Arganica are scrambling to meet.

But maybe the biggest remaining hurdle fresh food advocates face is the pervasive perception that to eat locally and healthily is somehow “elitist”—not to mention more costly and time-consuming than buying fast or processed meals.   The minute you purchase an organic apple, you are suddenly lumped among NPR-listening, NYT’s crossword-puzzle-doing, out-of-touch-with-the-common-man liberals. As a conservative—in the robust, Teddy Roosevelt tradition—I am perpetually gobsmacked to find myself on the side of the political fence with people who are enraged that Michelle Obama is trying to introduce healthy foods into public schools—or insist that the right to be obese and eat junk food can be found somewhere in the Constitution. When you think about it, these arguments against preparing meals from scratch are nonsense.

Often an example given is the McDonald’s $1 meal, which we are assured is essential to low-income budgets: Imagine a single mother hauling her children in for breakfast before school drop-off, on her way to work.  No food prep needed during the morning madness when she’s trying to get the kids dressed and ready to leave.  If she has two kids, she spends only $3 (plus tax) on breakfast for the whole family.

Now compare the price of the $1 meal—along with its zero-nutritional value and the future health problems it’s going to create—to a box of Cheerios (“Honey Nut” if you prefer the sweet version). An 18-oz box costs approximately $3.00 at a chain supermarket.  One box contains approximately 17 servings–which works out to about 18-cents per serving, not including milk.  So add in a 1/2 cup of milk—priced at an average of $4 per gallon—and that comes to an additional 12-cents per serving, or 30-cents total per breakfast.  The “prep time” to pour cereal and milk (presuming the kids can’t do it themselves?) surely amounts to less time than it takes to go to a restaurant, stand in line, and pay for the meal.  And less money as well when you factor in gas or transportation costs to the restaurant. I could do the same exercise with lunch or dinner.

Then there’s the “time and convenience” excuse.  We are told that working parents these days are too busy to cook.  And even if they have a spare moment or two, they are certainly too exhausted to prepare a meal

But this argument too doesn’t hold up after a few minutes thought: Maybe never in the course of human history has a society had “more time” than ours to prepare and eat food. And yes, I’m including working single mothers and “dual-income earning” families here.  It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t eat a meal without lighting a stove—with firewood or coal.  And back then, it was common for everyone in the household to work and do chores, including children.  There were no microwaves, no electric stoves, no refrigerators, no food processors, no convenience stores or supermarkets. Every single item of food had to be cleaned and prepped from scratch using manual tools. The day ended with lightfall, so you’d better have it all done by then.  And even with the advent of better technology and lighting,  I don’t think an Edwardian or Depression-era household—or a 1950s housewife for that matter—enjoyed  “more time” than we do today. The sheer easiness and convenience of modern life has simply allowed us to busy ourselves in different ways, liberated from the once all-consuming daily tasks of domesticity. And thus we have drifted away from learning very basic, useful household skills.

So while it may seem easier to order in a pizza, or zap a pre-fab mini-meal in the microwave, it’s not really so.  How much extra effort does it really take to get together a bowl of salad (especially given that lettuces now come pre-mixed and pre-washed)?  Or boil fresh beans and toss them with some salt, oil and lemon? Or, as I noted with the fish filet, dust it with some flour and seasoning and fry it or broil it for a minute or two?  You can do the same with simple cuts of chicken and beef. Or put on a pot of pasta and in the space of time it’s cooking whip up very simple homemade sauce.  There’s an app for that.

Then do the economics for dividing the costs of the fresh ingredients among three or four people—for most dishes I doubt it will come out to much more than a large take-out Domino’s pizza.

The problem is that we’ve persuaded ourselves—as we surf the internet, download movies, check our email and play games on our phones—that preparing food from scratch is as awesome and time-consuming as knitting our own sweaters.  Who would even bother to do that?  It’s true that planning fresh meals does take a certain amount of ingenuity and creativity to avoid repetition—moreso than cruising the prepared food aisle or ordering the number 4 with Diet Coke, thanks.  And yet, that’s what makes the emerging farm-to-doorstep market so exciting—and in the end, so easy.

By putting the farm order forms online, you can order your groceries at your convenience—and also have the time to brood over the choices as you check your email or quickly google search a recipe. Arganica, like other sites, even posts fast recipes for that week’s seasonal harvest.  When the food arrives, you’ve already thought the meals through.  And now you don’t need to go to the supermarket for several days. What’s more, everything you make will taste delicious.  Anyone who has grown even so little as a cherry tomato on their patio knows the difference between the fresh-plucked juicy version versus the red cannonballs that fill supermarket bins in January.

I’m wondering, then, if farm marketers haven’t made a mistake by focusing on the homey, nostalgic aesthetic of another era.  At a certain level it makes sense: that customers receive their weekly deliveries hand-packed in wooden crates and paper sacks is a powerful psychological sales tool against the shiny, shrink-wrapped products of mass-produced food.

But I wonder if a better economic strategy wouldn’t be to package fresh farm products in a more contemporary way.  Americans are innately forward-looking.  They want the next good thing, not the good thing of 30 years ago. I’m sure there’s a way to box the food in a “green” container that looks hip and urban—a hint of retro, but not too much. Like the funkily patterned, reusable shopping bags now on sale everywhere—or even something in a smartphone aesthetic: What would an app for a farm-to-table delivery service look like?  Go from there.

Now excuse me while I go trim that broccoli for tonight’s dinner.

Follow Danielle on twitter @DCrittenden1

Why Are the Feds Peddling Light Bulbs?

March 11th, 2011 at 1:34 pm 27 Comments

In a recent piece at FrumForum, David Jenkins criticizes the GOP for looking to undo energy standards on light bulbs.  Jenkins certainly knows a lot more than I do about bulbs.  All I can do is tell a light bulb that allows me to read at night from one that doesn’t. Up until now, traditional light bulbs did their job well, while the new eco-friendly ones tended to turn the room into a North Korean bathroom.

That was the case the first time I tested a tube-like bulb some years ago. I had been told it made financial sense to use them so I tried. I didn’t need the government to tell me so.

Some of the new bulbs (the ones that light up quite like the old ones) are okay.  They seem to last longer than the first generation of eco-friendly ones, which is good because they are about ten times more expensive. The tube-shaped ones are still awful, whatever the package says about the number of “lumens” they produce.

But that is not the issue. The problem is the one Jenkins does not address: why does the government have to step in? Usually, when someone has a good product, he doesn’t need to lobby the government into making it mandatory.

Jenkins has three main arguments, which are:

  • new bulbs work well
  • they are cost-effective
  • the government must force you to use them

It seems to me that one at least must be wrong. And that is why people have all the right to be exasperated. Government intrusion is much more tolerable when its justification makes some sense.

The GOP’s Dim Bulb Bill

March 10th, 2011 at 12:47 am 54 Comments

This week the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will have a hearing on Senator Mike Enzi’s “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, rx ” which has also been introduced in the House by Joe Barton (R-TX) along with a similar measure by Michele Bachmann. The legislation seeks to repeal a provision of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act that sets energy efficiency requirements for light bulbs.

Proponents of this assault on energy efficiency claim that the 2007 legislation bans incandescent light bulbs and that their legislation strikes a blow for freedom by protecting consumer choice in lighting.

Don’t be surprised if Glenn Beck dedicates an upcoming blackboard diagram to the great light bulb conspiracy and asserts that the right of Americans to use inefficient lighting is actually spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.

What’s next, a resolution renaming the energy guzzling incandescent as the Freedom Bulb?

Notwithstanding the “bulb ban” rhetoric, the law does not ban incandescent lighting, or any other lighting technology for that matter. Instead, it sets energy efficiency standards for lighting, like the appliance standards in existing federal law that date back to the Reagan administration.

The 2007 law requires that starting next year general purpose 100 watt light bulbs will have to give off an equivalent amount of light (1,500 lumens) using only 72 watts of electricity. While that gives a leg up to energy sipping florescent and LED lighting, the reality is that Phillips already produces a halogen incandescent that exceeds the 2012 standard.

(Note: Senator Enzi and his cohorts can confirm this if they will just trot on over to the nearest Lowe’s or Home Depot.)

Similar requirements will take effect in 2013 and 2014 for incandescent bulbs rated for lower levels of light output. Exempt from the requirements are incandescent bulbs used for special applications – refrigerator lights, for example.

Framing the issue in terms of productivity, a conventional incandescent bulb produces about 15 lumens per watt. If the incandescent were a worker, it would be fired for poor productivity. Ninety percent of the input energy that goes into incandescent bulbs produces waste heat.

A 26-watt compact florescent bulb (CFL) will yield a similar amount of light as a 100-watt incandescent, so it’s four times as productive. Newer LED lighting, which is rapidly gaining market share despite being pricey, is even more productive. LED bulbs put out more than 100 lumens per watt.

Lighting productivity is important. We don’t buy electricity for the sake of collecting electrons. We buy electricity for the services it provides – running computers, chilling food, running appliances, and lighting our homes.

The more light you can get per dollar spent on electricity, the better off you will be economically. Not only that, CFLs and LEDs last much longer than incandescent bulbs.

President Reagan obviously thought that efficiency standards made sense. They did not offend his conservative values, nor should they. Can anyone think of anything less conservative than waste? For the same reason conservatives should oppose wasteful spending, they should also oppose wasteful energy use.

So why would anyone be against standards that result in more efficient products that save consumers money, conserve energy, and improve our environment with virtually no real sacrifice?

Of course these libertarian champions of waste who seek to save the inefficient light bulb complain that any standards are symptomatic of an overly intrusive nanny-state.

They also heap all sorts of criticism on CFLs. This is not all that relevant since the standards do not contain any mandate on technology. Odds are that LEDs will dominate the market once prices come down.

Still, it is worth pointing out that the CFL criticism is off the mark too. Typical complaints are that CFLs produce poor lighting quality, cost more, and that they contain dangerous levels of mercury. Most of these criticisms are based on older generations of CFLs. Today’s CFLs, while not perfect, simply don’t have many of the flaws their predecessors did.

As for the mercury issue, each CFL bulb contains about 5 milligrams of mercury and they do need to be disposed of properly, just like batteries, used motor oil, cell phones etc.

If mercury is the concern, then think about the mercury emitted by all the coal burned to light up those inefficient incandescent bulbs.

Popular Mechanics ran the numbers – one 75-watt incandescent is responsible for nearly four times as much mercury emissions as one 25-watt CFL over the estimated 7,500 hours that a CFL lasts. Even if all the mercury in CFLs were released into the environment, incandescents would still be responsible for more mercury emissions.

It is quite telling how little confidence the sponsors of the “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act” have in American businesses to innovate and produce a product that responds to today’s energy challenges.  If anyone is trying to mandate a specific technology— and an old one at that—it is these misguided Republicans.

Will GOP Give Climate Science a Fair Shake?

March 8th, 2011 at 10:59 am 22 Comments

House Democrats persuaded Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) to hold a hearing today on climate science. At a time when bipartisan gestures are hard to come by, I suppose that this hearing should be viewed as a positive development.

It’s too bad that any credible testimony on climate science is likely to fall on deaf ears in a subcommittee that is stacked with a veritable who’s who of GOP climate change skeptics and shills for fossil fuel interests.

Chief among these is Joe Barton (R-TX) who last week summed up his view on carbon emissions by saying:

I expel carbon dioxide at about 40,000 parts per million … so how in the world can that be a pollutant?

Perhaps someone should point out to Congressman Barton that he, like everyone else, also emits methane and fecal coliform bacteria. Would he use the same logic to argue that those are not pollutants?

There will be a few well-respected climate scientists on hand, such as Dr. Richard Somerville and Dr. Christopher Field, who could set Mr. Barton straight—unfortunately they were invited by the Democrats.

The Republican witness list includes two well-worn contrarians, Dr. John Christy and Dr. Roger Pielke, who basically assert that predicting future climate change is a futile and worthless endeavor, or that there is nothing mankind can do to effectively address it. Thankfully their “can’t do” attitude was not shared by scientists of the past who have cured diseases, sent men to the moon, or helped solve past pollution problems.

The GOP list also curiously enough includes Dr. Donald Roberts. Dr. Roberts is not a climate scientist, but rather a professor of tropical medicine who happens to be a huge fan of the pesticide DDT.  He actually wrote a book on DDT called The Excellent Powder and blames the environmental movement for its banning in the U.S. and sparse use around the world.

Ideally, congressional hearings should represent an honest search for facts by open-minded lawmakers who want to make informed policy decisions.

At a House Science Committee hearing last November, then Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC) encouraged climate scientists to welcome the coming GOP led hearings, saying:

Those will be difficult hearings…But I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach.

The only hitch in that wise advice is that teachers need students who are willing to learn.

In all likelihood today’s hearing will be nothing more than an adversarial dog and pony show where scientific facts meet impenetrable hard heads, narrow minds and ill-conceived smoke screens.

For all of the efforts of GOP lawmakers to wrap themselves in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, they fail to emulate the resolve for problem solving and thirst for knowledge that led him to heed the warnings of climate scientists and address ozone depletion.

Reagan fully understood his obligations as a public servant and what the stakes were. He articulated this well in his famous 1964 A Time for Choosing speech:

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.

If the Republicans at today’s climate hearing want to justify their brief moment here, a nice step in the right direction would be to open their minds and learn from the real climate experts in the hearing room—no matter who invited them.

Hands Off Our Oil Reserves

March 6th, 2011 at 7:22 pm 13 Comments

Democrats in Congress are clamoring for President Obama to open the stopcocks at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and let the crude splash into the market in order to drive down pump prices.  It’s a bad idea, for three reasons.

One, the reserve squirreled away in Gulf Coast salt caverns is intended for truly dire energy emergencies. Doing what the Democrats are asking would be like a family raiding its emergency savings account to cover an increase in gasoline prices.

Second, if oil were taken out of the reserve, the withdrawn amount would have to be replaced, probably at higher prices than we paid for stocking the oil in the first place. That’s a bad deal for taxpayers.

Third, taking oil from the reserve would give credence to the notion that there’s nothing wrong with being addicted to oil as long as the liquor cabinet is full when we belly up to the bar for our regular fix.

Since oil markets are prone to charging fear premiums whenever there’s tumult in oil exporting places, then the oil markets are trying to tell us something – conserve now and start thinking rationally about our energy future now, rather than waiting for the good-to-the-last-drop crowd on the Hill to at last wise up.

Breaking our oil addiction will take time, political will, and a balanced energy strategy based on facts, not on ideological hobbyhorses. That baggage should be checked at the door, including the Right’s drill-baby-drill sloganeering and the Left’s utopian fantasies.

Few in D.C. want to talk about it in rational terms these days, but a price on carbon should be the centerpiece of a strategy for weaning the U.S. off oil and giving alternative transportation fuels and drive systems a shot at breaking the petroleum monopoly.

Otherwise, our economy and security will be at the mercy of the next petro-potentate whose people start shooting at him.

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Chu’s Energy Research Hijack

February 26th, 2011 at 11:03 am 14 Comments

Nobel Laureate and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu seems to have taken a page from early 20th century labor leader Samuel Gompers:  at every turn he screams for “more.” Even as the Obama administration and both parties in Congress pay lip-service to budget cuts (while doing little to enact them), sickness Chu has taken to running around with a Power Point calling for his department’s budget to grow in almost every area of its operations. For all intents and purposes, order Chu has a proposal to turn his department into a huge government-run research and development firm.  Although intended as an outline for growth, illness Chu’s lucid presentation can also be taken as an outline for slimming his department and cutting government.

The great bulk of Chu’s proposed spending increases and billions of dollars in new loan guarantees (off budget for now, but a taxpayer liability if they’re not repaid) go for applied research and product development. Chu’s department would work to put 1 million electrical vehicles on the road, build new nuclear reactors, establish new “Energy Innovation Hubs,” and open new “Energy Frontier Research Centers.” The Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy, which tries to develop innovative new energy-related products would also get a big boost in funding. So would efforts to improve the overall reliability of the electrical gird and weatherize individual homes (states still have millions of leftover dollars from stimulus-related efforts to do this.) Worthwhile or not on their own terms—and, certainly, some of the new technologies proposed for investment seem like decent ideas—there’s little reason to think that the government ought to be doing any of this. Since they have huge theoretical benefits–no fuel price fluctuations and little or no pollution in the traditional sense–any person or company that figured out an efficient, low-cost way to harness any “green” energy source would make billions of dollars.  Many of the nation’s largest and most profitable companies are in the energy business and have enormous incentive to do energy research themselves.

Taxpayer subsidies let the government decide where R&D dollars get spent.  Furthermore, quite simply, the government has never been any good at developing actual consumer products of any kind. While U.S. government labs and projects have helped in developing the underlying technologies that created everything from the Internet to nuclear power, the private sector has always done much better than the government in bringing new fundamental discoveries to market. Government efforts to develop much better, cheaper housing construction methods (Operation Breakthrough), gasoline substitutes (Synfuels), and a “car of the future” (Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles) produced nothing useful at all but ran through millions of dollars. The handful of useful products to come directly out of publically financed institutions, like NCSA-Mosaic, the first useful web browser, have typically come from creative people working on projects they thought were interesting rather than the government-mandated task. Even if Chu’s DOE somehow succeeds in developing useful consumer products, the financial benefits of having created them will accrue only to profit-making corporations, not taxpayers as a whole.

All this isn’t to say that it’s possible or even wise to trim the federal budget by the entire $30 billion DOE spends. When the department secures nuclear facilities, cleans up environmental messes that the government itself has made, and does basic research, it is performing necessary government functions. Nuclear security is certainly a government responsibility and it’s likely that the $11.8 billion in proposed spending is worth it.  Likewise, it seems pretty cut and dry that the government should, indeed, spend most of the $6 billion or so it devotes to cleaning up environmental messes its own work has produced.  Finally, basic research—devoted to understanding the fundamental laws of nature without trying to solve any particular problem—has never been done at a large scale without public sector support. Thus, the $2 billion–a 24 percent increase–proposed for “basic energy research” is probably a decent investment. Of course, none of this spending is beyond question and some might be done better outside of DOE.  But even if one rejects the Obama administration’s proposed increases in all of these “necessary” areas and then cuts spending ten percent, that still leaves somewhere around $17 billion in truly necessary spending on current DOE projects. This is still a huge cut from the $29 billion Chu wants to spend.

A look at Chu’s DOE budget, in short, reveals two things. First, that there is, indeed, plenty of wasteful spending that the country would be better off without. Second, even a hugely bloated agency does carry out some valuable, core functions that probably shouldn’t go away.