The world’s dumbest idea: Taxing solar energy

We shouldn't be taxing these guys.	 (AP Photo/Shannon Dininny)

In a setback for the renewable energy movement, the state House in Oklahoma this week passed a bill that would levy a new fee on those who generate their own energy through solar equipment or wind turbines on their property. The measure, which sailed to passage on a near unanimous vote after no debate, is likely to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin.

The bill, known as S.B. 1456, will specifically target those who install power generation systems on their property and sell the excess energy back to the grid. However, those who already have such renewable systems installed will not be affected.

Still, it’s the new customers who will rapidly make up the majority, even in a traditional oil-and-gas powerhouse like Oklahoma. That’s because the cost of solar power systems has beendrastically falling for the last five years. Solar installations nationwide are going to shoot up to an estimated 45 gigawatts in 2014, a new record, and are projected to grow even more in coming years as solar prices fall further and fossil fuel extraction gets harder and more expensive.

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Get ready for a massive renewable energy boom


Renewables will be the fastest growing source of energy between now and 2040, according to new projections from the Energy Information Administration.

The EIA forecasts that from 2012 to 2040, solar, wind, and geothermal production will nearly double, rising 97 percent. The next closest projection is for natural gas, which is expected to grow 56 percent.

Of course, renewables make up a small proportion of global power generation. So even after all that growth, renewables are estimated to account for a measly 3.8 percent of total energy production in 2040, compared with 38 percent for natural gas.

But this is actually an extremely conservative estimate. Renewables — and especially solar — aren’t really like other energy sources. Non-renewables are energy-rich fuels, but there is only a finite supply in the ground. This means that prices are unpredictable and subject to large spikes that badly damage the economy, as occurred in the 1970s and the 2000s.

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Why the post-antibiotic world is the real-life version of the zombie apocalypse


Right now, humanity is engaged in an epic battle against fast-adapting and merciless predators. No, zombies are not beating down doors to tear chunks of flesh out of the living. Rather, humanity is being hunted by deadly pathogenic bacteria that have gained resistance to antibiotics.

And thanks to the peculiar incentives that drive the pharmaceutical industry, it looks like the cavalry may be a long time in coming.

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Can Google Go 100 Percent Renewable?

if-google-sees-the-light-now-it-could-mean-big-gains-for-the-companys-future

This week, Google announced in a blog post a new $80 million investment in solar energy in California and Arizona, bringing its total investments in renewable energy since 2010 to over $1 billion. It’s just the latest step in an ongoing project by Google to keep at the forefront of the green energy industry.

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, Rick Needham, Google’s director of energy and sustainability, explained Google’s shift into the renewable energy industry:

“When Google thinks about sustainability, one of the big areas that we think about is energy because that’s fundamentally a core piece of what drives our company. We think what can we do as a company to make sure we’re operating sustainably and the ways we can enable a more sustainable world. We ask what can we do to get us to a place where clean energy is an option for everyone.” [The Guardian]

He adds that Google’s ultimate aim is to derive 100 percent of its energy usage from renewable sources:

“We want to be 100 percent renewable. We don’t have a date set for that target, but with our investments, we aim to move the market in that direction.” [The Guardian]

Besides attaining the dream of clean and sustainable energy, I can think of three business reasons why Google might want to go totally green.

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On My Enthusiasm For Solar Energy

I am a solar energy enthusiast. The energetic parts of the universe are clustered around stars. We sit here on this dusty ball of rock and water, heated continually by the Sun. The difference between when we face toward our local star and when we face away from it is — in the most literal sense — day and night. Our lives on Earth are already solar-powered; the plants (and plant-eating animals) we eat get their energy from photosynthesis. The trees and other biomass we have used for energy for much of our history, as well as the fossil fuel reserves we use today are forms of stored solar energy from earlier organisms that died and were trapped under the Earth. Wind energy and tidal energy are perturbations of dynamical systems heated by solar energy. Even the nuclear energy we use extracted from fissionable uranium and plutonium is stored from supernovae in early stars that exploded and pushed the complex elements — including the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in our bodies — out across the universe.

It is not so much a question of whether we use solar energy, but whether we use direct solar energy, or some derivative form. As our civilisation has advanced and grown, we have had to tap into larger sources to meet the demand for cheap and easily-accessible energy. Our technological sophistication and understanding of basic physics and chemistry has had to grow with our energy hunger to take advantage of different forms of energy; windmills, steam engines, oil refineries, cold water reactors and photovoltaic panels, and so on. In the long run, it is a mathematical certainty that to sustain our civilisation at present levels, or to grow and increase energy consumption we must transition to renewable energy both because quantities of fossil fuels and star fuels like uranium and plutonium on Earth are finite.

The availability of direct solar energy on Earth dwarfs other energy sources, including renewable energy:

planetary-energy-graphic-energy-resources-renewables-fossil-fuel-uranium-e1331370752412

All that is necessary in the long run for renewable energy sustainability is that the level of output exceeds the level of input enough to provide a reliable energy source. Even at current solar efficiencies — and thus assuming that the technology won’t improve — photovoltaic solar generates seven times more energy than it takes to generate:

2000px-eroi_-_ratio_of_energy_returned_on_energy_invested_-_usa-modified

While this is not currently as good as oil or natural gas or coal, it already beats shale oil and biofuels. The beautiful thing about solar energy is that there is so much of it that the technology does not have to be greatly efficient. And prices are falling and efficiencies are improving. While some renewables like wind and hydroelectric are more efficient, they are not abundant enough to even cover the bulk of our energy needs today. In the short run, combined with hydroelectric and wind and nuclear there is a real basis for long-term renewable energy sustainability. To smooth the transition, renewable technology needs investment and development.

In the long run, while obviously renewables still cost a lot more than non-renewables in the marketplace, but we have already established that that cannot last forever. Even the supply of uranium is limited. While we may discover superior technologies like cold fusion, we should be completely prepared for the eventuality that we don’t discover a better technology. While photovoltaic solar remains the largest and most long-term source of available energy — and thus the best hope for the continuation and expansion of sustainable human civilisation — it should receive a bulk of funding and development, and we should assume that in the very long run it should meet the bulk of our energy needs. There are still challenges like solar energy storage, but these challenges are being surmounted with improved battery technologies, and improved distribution technologies such as microgrids. 

Of course, if the photovoltaic solar price trend known as the Swanson Effect that has seen solar fall over 99% in cost since the 1970s continues, then solar will reach and exceed parity with other energy sources and be crowned the winner by the market based simply on  low cost. After all, solar energy is superabundant compared to the alternatives, so it would not be at all surprising for it to become the cheapest. But even if the Swanson Effect does not play out and solar does not become super-cheap, direct photovoltaic solar is extremely likely to play a major role in continued human civilisation on this planet and elsewhere.

Is Global Warming a Blessing in Disguise?

This is highly speculative analysis, but looking at the most recent climate data, I can’t help but think that this is more evidence that anthropogenic global warming is averting an ice age:

marcott-b-mj

There can be no doubt that in recent years that there has been a large uptick in temperature, probably related to the sharp uptick in carbon dioxide levels. Temperatures have returned to levels last seen during the peak of the most recent interglacial period, 6,000 to 8,000 years ago Analysis by climate scientists has tended to focus on the disruptive effects that this may have — sea level rise, glacier loss, drought, etc.  What’s striking about the extended timeframe data, however, is the gradual downward slope over the last 6000 years — the Earth’s climate was changing in the opposite direction when humans began offsetting this by burning fossil fuels. It does not seem unreasonable, given the evidence of a longer-term glaciation cycle, that had humans not started to emit massive quantities of greenhouse gases, that the cooling trend would have continued. Burning fossil fuels seems to have had a powerful countercylical effect.

Falling temperatures and increased glaciation may have made it very difficult for human civilisation to continue to progress. The fossil record suggests humanity has existed in various forms for four million years, and there is evidence that non-anthropogenic climate change — including glaciation — has been a disruptive force in the past. So it seems increasingly likely to me that the countercylical climactic effects of the industrial revolution may have been supportive to the continued existence of human civilisation. Furthermore, had the anthropogenic emissions occurred at a different time — say, during a time of cyclical warming — the probability of catastrophic effects may have been much higher, because the effects would have been cumulative. That doesn’t mean that the current trend may not have catastrophic effects in the long run, especially if emissions and greenhouse gas levels continue to grow.

I look forward to decreasing reliance on fossil fuels, and decreased carbon emissions. As solar power and nuclear power (etc) become cheaper and more efficient (inevitably eclipsing fossil fuels, whose extractable quantities are naturally limited) carbon emissions should gradually decrease. Given that we have already experienced significant countercylical warming, that is probably a good thing. Indeed, we may have gone too far already, and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (perhaps even to pre-industrial levels) may be necessary. But given the pre-existing trend of falling temperatures, we must take seriously the possibility that anthropogenic global warming has averted big problems.

Explaining The WTI-Brent Spread Divergence

Something totally bizarre has happened in the last three years. Oil in America has become much, much cheaper than oil in Europe. Oil in America is now almost $30 cheaper than oil in Europe.

This graph is the elephant in the room:

3 year brent spread

And this graph shows how truly historic a move this has been:

brent-WTI-spread

Why?

The ostensible reason for this is oversupply in America. That’s right — American oil companies have supposedly been producing much, much more than they can sell:

This is hilarious if prices weren`t so damn high, but despite a robust export market for finished products, crude oil is backing up all the way to Cushing, Oklahoma, and is only going to get worse in 2013.

Now that Enterprise Products Partners LLP has let the cat out of the bag that less than a month after expanding the Seaway pipeline capacity to 400,000 barrels per day, The Jones Creek terminal has storage capacity of 2.6 million barrels, and it is basically maxed out in available storage.

But there’s something fishy about this explanation. I don’t know for sure about the underlying causality — and it is not impossible that the oil companies are acting incompetently — but are we really supposed to believe that today’s oil conglomerates in America are so bad at managing their supply chain that they will oversupply the market to such an extent that oil sells at a 25% discount on the price in Europe? Even at an expanded capacity, is it really so hard for oil producers to shut down the pipeline, and clear inventories until the price rises so that they are at least not haemorrhaging such a huge chunk of potential profit on every barrel of oil they are selling? I mean, that’s what corporations do (or at least, what they’re supposed to do) — they manage the supply chain to maximise profit.

To me, this huge disparity seems like funny business. What could possibly be making US oil producers behave so ridiculously, massively non-competitively?

The answer could be government intervention. Let’s not forget that the National Resource Defence Preparedness Order gives the President and the Department of Homeland Security the authority to:

(c)  be prepared, in the event of a potential threat to the security of the United States, to take actions necessary to ensure the availability of adequate resources and production capability, including services and critical technology, for national defense requirements;

(d)  improve the efficiency and responsiveness of the domestic industrial base to support national defense requirements; and

(e)  foster cooperation between the defense and commercial sectors for research and development and for acquisition of materials, services, components, and equipment to enhance industrial base efficiency and responsiveness.

And the ability to:

(e)  The Secretary of each resource department, when necessary, shall make the finding required under section 101(b) of the Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 2071(b).  This finding shall be submitted for the President’s approval through the Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor and the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.  Upon such approval, the Secretary of the resource department that made the finding may use the authority of section 101(a) of the Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 2071(a), to control the general distribution of any material (including applicable services) in the civilian market.

My intuition is that it is possible that oil companies may have been advised (or ordered) under the NDRP (or under the 1950 Defense Production Act) to keep some slack in the supply chain in case of a war, or other national or global emergency. This would provide a capacity buffer in addition to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

If that’s the case, the question we need to ask is what does the US government know that other governments don’t? Is this just a prudent measure to reduce the danger of a resource or energy shock, or does the US government have some specific information of a specific threat?

The other possible explanation, of course, is ridiculous incompetence on the part of US oil producers. Which, I suppose, is almost believable in the wake of Deepwater Horizon…