Thursday, July 29, 2010

one small proposal for getting from here to there

Our earth is undergoing measurable global climate warming that has a significant anthropogenic component, with the primary anthropogenic contribution to warming coming from the steady increase in CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Moreover, warming that has already occurred over the past century and warming that is certain to occur in the next century, have had and will have recognizable negative impacts on the health of human beings and human societies. Those impacts include, but are not limited to, rises in sea level and loss of shoreline, changes in plant and animal populations (declines, increases, shifts in range) including changes in disease vectors (such as West Nile Virus and Malaria carrying mosquitoes), increasing drought with its impact on food crops and human water supplies, and increasing extreme precipitation events with concomitant flooding.

Among the scientific community there is debate and need for continuing research on how much warming and how fast future warming will occur, and the regional patterning of impacts, but there is general consensus on the basic facts of warming and its causes and its consequences. Recent polling of the general population in the United States shows that about three quarters of the American population accept the scientific consensus on the reality of global warming and the anthropogenic causes of that warming. However, there is a decided lack of consensus both within the scientific community and the general population on exactly what should be done to address the problems posed now and in the future by global warming.

Just because people agree that a problem exists and that something should be done, has never meant that they will agree on what to do about that problem. This has always been true. There are lots of good sociological and psychological reasons for this lack of agreement. From a psychological perspective immediate, present threats to one's livelihood and material well-being are more salient and real than predicted future threats no matter how real we consider those future threats to be. A parent will always be more concerned about the present day need to keep a roof over their children's heads and food on the table today, than they will be about the availability of housing and food for those children in 20 years.

From a sociological perspective we have organized our economy around the need to maintain very short term current profitability to retain investors, rather than around long term future. The structures, rules and practices of business decision-making and investor decision-making, make it difficult for either business managers or investors to forgo current profits in exchange for long term sustainability.

For a utility company currently generating most of its electricity from coal fired plants shifting to solar or wind generation has many economic drawbacks. If a utility simply purchases "green" power from another electricity producer who is already invested in wind, solar or hydro-power, the primary profit from power production goes to the actual producer not the utility company purchasing the power. To make any profit, they have to raise the cost of that power to the customer, making it more expensive than the coal generated power, and thus less attractive to consumers of electricity. Such a move also introduces greater inefficiencies -- the further electricity is transmitted the greater the loss, so purchases power from a distant provider means that you get less power for your buck as well.

On the other hand, if a utility company decides to themselves begin producing electricity from wind, solar or hydro sources, there is the huge upfront capital investment that must be made. While this may have great long term profit potential (once constructed one never has to pay for sunlight or wind unlike coal), it has tremendous short term costs that affect profitability and investor satisfaction. If a utility attempts to pay for this by raising utility rates up front, there is substantial customer dissatisfaction, and in states (like Kentucky) with strong political incentives to protect coal, little political interest for public utility commissions to support such rate increases. Additionally, the construction of a centralized solar or wind generation plant requires huge acreage, that may not be readily available to a utility company near its customer base.

Finally, another reason that utility companies become nervous about discussions, is that the idea mode of generating electricity from solar energy is a pattern of dispersed, household level or building level generation, where solar panels sufficient to the needs of a particular housing unit or office building are placed on the building itself. This eliminates two problems: first, all the extra land that would be needed for centralized solar generation, and second, the problem of electricity losses due to transmission over distance. However, since currently housing unit and office building solar electricity generation is financed and operated by individual families or businesses it represents a loss of revenue for the utility company, and certainly not something they really want to encourage.

Moreover, from the point of view of the individual, family or business, the cost of constructing small localized solar (and wind) generation is quite large (at least $20,000), and far beyond the reach of the median household. While such household level solar (and wind) electricity generation does pay for itself over twenty to twenty-five years (the vast majority of the costs are in the initial hardware and installation and after that the electricity itself is essentially free), the upfront costs are prohibitive for all but the most affluent and most environmentally committed.

Now, finally to my proposal. I acknowledge up-front, as a person who is uncomfortable with the power of utility companies now, this is not my ideal solution, but it is a means of decreasing the input of CO2 into the atmosphere, to ameliorate future extent of global warming and its impact, while dealing with many of the problems outlined above. My proposal is that electric utility companies currently heavily invested in their own coal-fired generation consider adopting the model used by Bell Telephone in the 1950's. In exchange for a modest installation fee (say a few hundred dollars that could be prorated over a period of time) well within the budgets of middle and working class families with "green values," the utility company would deliver and install solar panels on the consumers home -- but, and here's what I think is a new idea (at least as applied to electricity generation) the utility company would retain ownership of those panels in perpetuity, and charge the consumer a monthly fee for the electricity consumed from those panels.

Here's the details -- the one's that I think would make this idea appealing to both the consumer and to the utility company. The individual solar installations would 1) be large enough to provide for ordinary, peak daylight hours electricity use and 2) would be tied into the grid allowing for both inflow and outflow. The utility company would benefit, because all excess electricity generated would flow into the grid for use by other customers (and unlike the situation where a household customer owns the solar installation, the utility company would own that excess flow outright and not be paying the customer with the installation for it). With each household or business that added solar generation, the electricity generating capacity of the entire grid would be expanded. The capitalization costs would be spread out over time -- no huge up-front investment in generation capacity years before any new power can be generated. Moreover, following current phone company and cable company practices, the utility company could charge a very small (a few dollars) monthly maintenance fee to consumers, to cover costs of periodic maintenance and repair.

The consumer would benefit in two ways: they would have the assurance that in the absence of sunlight they would still have electricity, and conversely, during widespread power outages due to downed transmission lines they would also still have their locally generated power. Indeed, if several households in a neighborhood had contracted with the utility for solar panels, the entire neighborhood circuit might be protected from electricity loss during a widespread outage.

In the beginning only middle income and upper income families that are highly committed to environmental, "green" values would participate. I know I would. I would be very willing to pay a reasonable premium in installation costs just to be assured that while I was sitting at my computer typing away I was using electricity generated by solar power rather than by coal obtained by scalping the mountains around me. Overtime, as people begin to notice, that one of their neighbors still has electricity after a storm has knocked out everyone else, the appeal of solar panels might spread. If the utility made the cost of electricity generated in situ from the solar panels marginally less expensive (say 1/2 cent per KWH) compared to electricity pulled from the grid, this would increase the appeal of participation.

From the utility company's perspective, they are able to gradually expand their generating capacity, using "green" sources, with small, periodic expenditures of capital that can be partially charged to the customer (installation fees), and also recouped by feeding all excess electricity generated into the grid. Customers without the panels who depended solely on the grid would pay the standard rate for their electricity. By dispersing solar generation through out the households served by a utility, there would be a substantial increase in efficiency, as electricity would be consumed closer to where it was generated, reducing the losses to long distance transmission. Most of all this idea allows utility companies to make the transition to renewable electricity generation gradual and incremental, and thus less painful and more acceptable.

So there is my idea -- somebody tell me what's wrong with it!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

weather is not climate, but....

The Weather Channel's website has a number of nifty new features. One of which provides you with lots of information about how your current month (and previous month) stack up against historical weather patterns. I've captured the screen shots for my zip code 41825, for June 2010 and July 2010.

Notice that for both June and July the "highest temperature recorded so far" is higher than the historical record for that month -- so we broke the all time temperature records for both June and July in Eastern Kentucky. Notice also that the total rain fall amounts for both June and July are well below the average. June's precitipation total was 1.05" below the average. Of course July isn't over yet, but let's hope we don't get 3.65" of rain in one week. While the July total rain is more than three and a half inches below normal, eastern Kentucky did get one whale of a gully-washer, to the great dismay and anguish of hundreds of folks in Pike county.

While it is important to remember that weather is not the same as climate, and unusually hot days occur periodically, as do droughts and floods, overall warming of the climate as is currently occurring on planet earth, does give rise to more frequent extreme heat, more common droughts, and paradoxically more frequent intense rain events like that seen in Pike County this month.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

how shall we live? part 1

My attention has returned in recent days to a theme that has long concerned me, a theme that has popped up in several very interesting blogs.

Will of Zen Agnostic sums this theme up nicely in this quote:
"most of what the doctors are calling mental illness, clinical depression, neurotic behavior - this not illness. It is a natural reaction to an insane culture and a dying planet....Part of the problem in this insane screwed up world is that people can't be open about their grief and anger. Our emotions are natural and healthy - but society at large labels us as unhealthy if we don't put on a smile every day and joke about the weather and sports and the latest celebrity DUI arrest. Simply writing about it, naming it, not hiding from it, is an act of resistance."
Over at Robert Jenson writes:
"To be fully alive today is to live with anguish, not for one's own condition in the world but for the condition of the world, for a world that is in collapse."
And Dave Pollard at how to save the world writes of the dissonance between the messages from our bodies (physical survival, avoidance of pain, procreation of our genetic material), our culture (values, beliefs, attitudes and norms), and from our environment or biosphere which he labels gaia. Dave argues that:
"this dissonance is paralyzing; it renders us ill, physically and mentally, and ultimately we get exhausted trying to handle it so we become desensitized, shut down."
Like these three bloggers, everything I know, everything I study as a sociologist, as a observer of human society and culture, suggest to me a world in collapse, that has already "overshot" the material basis (resources, food, energy) on which its existence depends. I strongly recommend reading the work of Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, The Limits to Growth (1972), Beyond the Limits (1992) and The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update (2004). Meadows, Randers and Meadows wrote in their first book (1972) that:
"If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrolled decline in both population and industrial capacity."
By 1992, Meadows, Randers and Meadows were convinced that those limits had already been reached in several areas (for example world wide grain production peaked in the 1980's), and by 2004 the conclude that we were approaching other limits much faster than their original hundred year time line.

Most people in modern industrial societies have lost awareness of how deeply the health of society is tied to the health of the environment. They think of our technology as lifting us above the vicissitudes of weather and changes in climate. Yet all one has to do is examine the extent to which "normal" daily activities in our society are fouled up and even stop dead, when it gets too snowy or too hot, or when a hurricane stops the pumping of oil for the Gulf, to realize that our technology has made our societies more rather than less vulnerable to changes in our environment.

We are on a path that is unsustainable in human social terms, not just in environmental terms. The two are so intimately intertwined that we cannot deal with one without dealing with the other. Our economy is not only unsustainable in terms of its use of resources and energy, but it is unstable and unsustainable in terms of the ever increasing disparity between the tiny percentage whose wealth is growing and the other 95 percent whose wealth is declining. We are impoverishing our people and our society as well as our ecosystems and biosphere.

[I realize that this is a larger topic than I can do in one post, given all the other immediate deadlines in my life, so I'm going to make this a multi-part post, with this installment just identifying the problem and linking to some great blogs. more on the actual question posed in the title another day.]

Friday, July 02, 2010

Obama administration beats Reagan hands down on unemployment

The recession of 2008-2010 is acknowledged by economists and politicians alike as having been by far the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930's. President Obama and his administration have been attacked for having high levels of unemployment as a result of this recession. Yet when we look at the record, we see that the policies of the Obama administration have kept unemployment rates far lower than those that occurred during the middle of Ronald Reagan's first term, during what everyone acknowledges was a far less severe recession.

Under Reagan unemployment rates rose higher and stayed there for longer than under Obama. Here's the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ronald Reagan, President
Recession of 1982-83


Total number of months unemployment was above 9% under Reagan was 19, number of months unemployment was above 10% under Reagan was 10 months.

Barack Obama, President
Recession of 2008-2010


Total number of months unemployment was above 9% under Obama so far has been 14, number of months unemployment was above 10% under Obama was only 3 months, less than one-third the number of months above 10% under Reagan.