Nuclear power as a stopgap to geothermal power

Kevin Kamberg

I started to dig into what John McCain's energy policy is vis-a-vis renewable energy. But then I realized that his policy tomorrow may not be the same as it is today or the same as it'll be the day after tomorrow. He has recently called for building 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030. But as I say, that's subject to change on a day-by-day basis.

A couple days ago, during a meeting with Governors, Barak Obama noted that nuclear power doesn't emit greenhouse gases and thus is worth devoting research dollars to. However he noted, "I don't think that nuclear power is a panacea."

An increasing number of environmentalists are calling for the nuclear option as a means of avoiding the impending global warming crisis. but only as a medium-term measure rather than as a long-term solution. James Lovelock (author of Gaia Hypothesis) and Jesse Ausubel, head of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, are at the forefront of them.

Ausebel explains,

"As a green, I care intensely about land-sparing, about leaving land for nature," he wrote. "To reach the scale at which they would contribute importantly to meeting global energy demand, renewable sources of energy such as wind, water, and biomass cause serious environmental harm. Measuring renewables in watts per square meter, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors."

For example, it would have required windfarms covering 301,000 square miles to have met the round-the-clock American electricity demands in 2005. By 2030 our electricity demands are expected to increase by 50%.

Which brings me to The Great Forgotten Clean-Energy Source: Geothermal

If we could extract all the geothermal energy that exists underneath the United States to a depth of two miles, it would supply America’s power demands (at the current rate of usage) for the next 30,000 years.

Geothermal is considered to be decades away from being able to make a significant contribution to our electricity needs. But the reason is more financial than technical. As MIT chemical engineering professor Jefferson Tester says, "It's not as if we don't know how to drill holes and fracture rocks. But we have to demonstrate EGS on a scale that would be useful for commercial enterprise." Another part of the problem is that hunting for good candidate sites for geothermal requires the exact same skilled geologists who the Big Boys are employing hunting for more petroleum sources because that's where the big money is at... currently. Which makes it that much more difficult for the geothermal wildcatters who are currently at the forefront of the business in this country to secure the necessary talent.

Doug Glaspey, chief operating officer of U.S. Geothermal, an Idaho-based company that just finished building a 13-megawatt geothermal electrical plant in southern Idaho, says that it currently costs up to $4 million per megawatt to build a geothermal plant. The 2005 electicity demand was roughly 4 trillion megawatt hours. So the financial costs of actually building geothermal facilities are obviously daunting too. But that's largely because so little research has been put into it. Much of our technology dates back to the oil prices were sky high - the 1970s.

The bad news: "The United States alone pumped the equivalent of nearly 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2005. More than 2 billion tons of that came from electricity generation."

The good news: Obama has pledged to plow $150 billion over the next 10 years into clean/cleaner energy and to double R&D funding for the same.

I know that this is heresy in some circles but I think that Lovelock and Ausebel make a lot of sense. Geothermal seems to present the greatest potential over the long haul. But until then we need to consider nuclear as a stopgap.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    Who's the author, please?

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    Sorry 'bout that. WP is almost identical to MT - not surprising since both are products of SixApart. I'm used to my MT form automatically supplying who the author is.

    My bad.

  • mlw (unverified)
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    It would be nice if some Democrat would take a responsible view on this issue. Obama opposes Yucca Mountain and supports a "local veto" on regional nuclear waste repositories, ensuring that waste will stay at less secure generating sites. The problem is that the status quo is more dangerous than any of the repository ideas. If Yucca is not to be the ultimate repository site, the American people deserve progress on a final repository site. Let's face it - it's got to go somewhere, it's the only plausible interim strategy that reduces the carbon footprint, and no one is going to say "sure, put it in my backyard."

  • edison (unverified)
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    Are our current level "power demands" really necessary? Or even appropriate? Is nuclear really viable as a stop-gap? An article in the Christain Science Monitor last year pointed out that " ... energy experts who have done life-cycle analysis of nuclear power, the big concern is that policymakers may be misled into believing that just because nuclear CO2 emissions are low, the cost of nuclear as an option to address climate change would be a bargain. Better, they say, to take the huge amounts of money needed for nuclear plants and use it to build lower-cost solutions that will displace more coal.

    "It's easy to show that building more reactors makes climate change worse than it should have been," says Amory Lovins, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank in Snowmass, Colo. "That's because a dollar put into new reactors gives two to 10 times less climate solution for the amount of coal-power displaced than if you had bought cheaper solutions with the same dollars." That same articel had this too: "First, nuclear was supposed to be too cheap to meter; now, they're framing it as a solution to climate change," says Erich Pica, director of economic policy for Friends of the Earth, an environmental group. "We hope this Democratic Congress will be skeptical of that claim."

    I hope so, but hey, I thought they would be skeptical of telecom immunity too.

  • Bill Jones (unverified)
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    Of course the most important statement above is: ... we have to demonstrate EGS on a scale that would be useful for commercial enterprise." ... Another part of the problem is that hunting for good candidate sites for geothermal... JK: In other words, it is still unproven and experimental - not practical yet. Unlike Nuke which is practical today.

    This is a constant theme among the alternative energy advocates - they keep promoting unproven things that are not ready for the big time as THE solution. Hydrogen was probably the most laughable example - it took a year or two for the scientifically illiterate press to realize that there was no source of hydrogen - you cannot dig it up or drill for it - it had to be made from something else. Then they said we could get it from water without realizing that that takes energy!

    Thanks JK

  • Peter Bray (unverified)
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    Obama, Obama... centrist Obama... selling out the 4th amendment, now going nuclear... what's next, bombing Iran?

  • Chris (unverified)
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    No one in their right mind would say "nuclear energy is completely safe". There's a chance for accidents, yes. But that's true of ALL industries. But nuclear power has a much cleaner track record than coal and oil. The regulations imposed on those industries are significantly lighter than those in the nuclear industry. Coal pollutants DEFINITELY kill people. No question. Plus, they contribute heavily to global warming. Nuclear power only kills when there are accidents. And to this day, the only accident that actually resulted in deaths was Chernobyl, which is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT type of reactor than those used in the western world. And there were only about 55 deaths than can actually be attributed to that accident, regardless of what anti-nuclear activists say. Read peer reviewed research, not their random web links, ok?

    The problem is that we want a zero-risk society. We have some conception that coal, gas, and oil are dirty, but they don't kill people and won't harm people 1 million years from now. But these conceptions are flat-out wrong. Nuclear power does entail some risks - but they are MUCH lower than any other method of creating baseload electricity.

  • Dave O'Dell (unverified)
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    Follow the money. Many of the loudest voices promoting nuclear as a "green" alternative" are sellouts just trying to make more profits for the military industrial complex:

    http://www.nuclearspin.org/index.php/Patrick_Moore

    As stated in a comment above nuclear power is super expensive. I remember when they said it would be too cheap to meter. Ha, don't believe everything you hear.

    I believe a better solution, though not as profitable for established mega corporations, is distributed power generation. Let's use loan guarantees to encourage Photovoltaics (PVs) on residential and business roofs. PVs are proven technology and have improved so much that they can now generate electricity in places like western Oregon. On your roof PVs have the added advantage of almost no loss over transmission lines which is where a good portion of electricity goes.

    Wind generation can be encouraged and used in a similar way, but is more suited to larger properties like farms.

    This won't supply all of our energy needs without a good storage solution (can't generate solar power at night), but it could reduce the need for new power plants. I think it is a much better use of our limited resources than nuclear (a power source whose pollution is toxic for millions of years).

  • Steve Snyder (unverified)
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    For those who are concerned about climate change and/or energy independence and are considering nuclear power, I would suggest checking out an article and paper by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Lovins is one of the foremost thinkers (and doers) on energy issues in the country. The first is Forget Nuclear and the second is a longer paper The Nuclear Illusion.

    A few points that he makes are - nuclear is so expensive that despite being heavily subsidized (~1-5 cents/kwh and 5-9 cents/kwh for new plants or 60-90% of projected power cost, wall street is still not funding new nuclear plants.

    Second, there are much more cost effective ways of dealing with energy viz climate change, energy independence...which include various forms of cogeneration and energy efficiencies...what Lovins calls negawatts. Anyway, check him out.

  • petr.ichor (unverified)
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    hey, as long as you are talking about enhanced geothermal systems (egs) on a, you know, state blog, you might want to mention that oregon--by several measures--has the greatest potential as an egs resource.

    here's a cool themal gradient map.

    southeast oregon is basically the Ghawar field of egs in the united states. egs may not be ready yet but i'd love to see some state money go towards some research, or perhaps even to subsidize a standard geothermal project to get things going...

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)
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    Another reason to vote for Obama - he's ditched the luddite environmentalist left on the nuclear power issue.

    Yes nuclear power is expensive. But $120 per barrel oil makes a lot of formerly expensive energy alternatives feasible, doesn't it?

    There's no reason we shouldn't have a chain of nuclear power plants at sheltered locations along Oregon's coast - the Columbia River mouth (far enough away from the LNG plant!), Tillamook Bay, Yaquina Bay, Alsea Bay, Coos Bay. In Washington they can go onto Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor.

    Add some tidal energy producers to the mix.

    Now wait a few years until the California fuel cell consortium produces a viable hydrogen powered vehicle, and the hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis using the clean energy from Oregon nuclear, hydro, wind, geothermal, and tidal power sources.

    It all adds up to a carbon-free energy policy. Without "going back to nature" like the environmentalist luddites would have us do.

  • Mike Austin (unverified)
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    At a projected cost of $10 billion each, the opportunity cost of a nuclear power plant it $10,000 worth of energy efficiency improvements - weatherization, insulation, solar hot water, etc. - for 1 million residences.

    Multiply that by 45 (for each power plant that McCain proposes) and we have 45 million residences that could have had their energy footprints permanently reduced. That's a substantial percentage of the total U.S. housing base.

    And, we won't need to "protect" those 45 million homes from the legions of terrorists that have infiltrated the U.S. and are just waiting to destroy our freedoms...

  • petr (unverified)
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    ah, UPO comes out from under his/her rock to bring us more of that delicious convential wisdom delivered straight from the pages of the economist.

    those stupid luddite environmentalists, they should just get on board with the right wing plan to extend the carbon economy with hype-drogen and nuclear.

    driving cars that run on hydrogen stored in a container is not going to happen this generation--maybe not even the next. there is no good way to store hydrogen without compromising the the structure of the container holding it. hydrogen bonds with nearly everything, producing a hydride. that is why all the promising hydrogen fuel-cell technologies right now involve creating hydrides to transport the hydrogen.

    question: what is a hydrocarbon? it is a hydride of hydrogen and carbon--the most common naturally existing hydride. the hydrogen economy that wankers like UPO dream about is not what we will get. rather, the hydrogen economy that we will get is one where hydrogen is used to enrich less energy dense hydrocarbons (like heavy crude, tar sands, oil shale, etc) with hydrogen.

    nuclear fits into the puzzle because when we get to the really dirty oil sources we will need to use lots of water and heat to enrich the carbon source with hydrogen. small scale nuclear heat process reactors will do the trick nicely.

    you may dream of a hydrogen economy, but be careful what you wish for--you might get it.

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    hey, as long as you are talking about enhanced geothermal systems (egs) on a, you know, state blog, you might want to mention that oregon--by several measures--has the greatest potential as an egs resource.

    That's actually a big part of why I posted it here. And I was gonna work that info in but it was getting late and I couldn't decide where to plug it in at so I figured it'd come up in comments.

    The Discover magazine piece that ran in the magazine had a similar map which I don't see on the website. But it showed Nevada as having the greatest potential with Oregon appearing to be close behind. The article itself says basically that if you draw a line from North Dakota to Texas, almost every state to the West is prime territory for EGS.

  • Jason Skelton (unverified)
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    Missing from the discussion on nuclear power is the impact of mining for the uranium. Like mining for coal, whole mountains need to be destroyed to get at this element. This is in addition to the run-off and other pollutants emitted in the process.

  • (Show?)

    Thanks for the Lovins references.

    1) If we don't have an adequate solution for the extant nuclear waste problems, it makes sense to multiply them by an order of magnitude per year going forward how?

    1a) The USDOE continues to keep floating proposals to make the Hanford Nuclear Reservation as site for new nuclear waste deposits, despite the continuing failure to clean up the old problems, and defunding that has the "clean-up" on a 300 year trajectory at current rates.

    This is not just a generic NIMBY point, though I think NIMBY gets a bad rap as a measure of risk and questions of power in equity of social burdens. It is simply idiotic to have a planned policy to place storage for highly risky and toxic waste which will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years in some cases in an area where it is already threatening the second largest river system in North America and a major downstream city (Portland) as well as many other smaller facilities.

    2) Nuclear power is a developed technology unlike say certain exploratory automaking technologies or sustainable generation that needs ramp-up to economies of scale. If Amory Lovins is right about market unwillingness to invest, that should be a criterion regarding cost, and it should not be subsidized.

    3) Since the late 1950s the U.S. government has massively subsidized liability insurance for nuclear power plants. That subsidy should be at least debated. The costs of the energy form should include the costs of the risks, in principle, but I suppose on the other side that there are risks related to global warming of other generation forms that are being externalized onto the commons. But overall, my preferred approach would be to remove the insurance subsidy and create mechanisms to include the global warming costs in the other forms.

    4) Safety technology may have improved, but two significant melt-downs (Three Mile Island, which came very close to being much worse than it was, and Chernobyl) at much smaller numbers of reactors than are being proposed, here and globally, does not make airy dismissals of concerns via name-calling comforting or persuasive.

    5) Kevin's passed-along land area costs of sustainables point is interesting and not one I have seen raised in this way before, something I will think about. Thanks Kevin.

  • Rob (unverified)
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    Geothermal hasn't received the research it deserves. Photovoltaics are roughly $7 a peak watt, but that covers daylight, not 24x7. Geothermal is in the $10 a 24x7 watt range or $.05-.07 per kW-hr. Oregon could export that, building sustainable economies in our Southern Oregon counties. The Western Interconnection grid is already in place. We could switch over to plug in hybrids while reaping the benefits of the inevitable cap and trade carbon policy endorsed by McCain and Obama.

    The free market has rejected nuclear in the US because of liability. There is an argument for the thorium fuel cycle which produces fewer highly radioactive long lived waste products and proliferation material.

  • Mike Austin (unverified)
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    At a projected cost of $10 billion each, the opportunity cost of a nuclear power plant it $10,000 worth of energy efficiency improvements - weatherization, insulation, solar hot water, etc. - for 1 million residences.

    Multiply that by 45 (for each power plant that McCain proposes) and we have 45 million residences that could have had their energy footprints permanently reduced. That's a substantial percentage of the total U.S. housing base.

    And, we won't need to "protect" those 45 million homes from the legions of terrorists that have infiltrated the U.S. and are just waiting to destroy our freedoms...

  • Mike Austin (unverified)
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    Jimmy Carter also dumped a ton of money into "alternative energy sources". Most of it went to the big oil, natural gas, and coal conglomerates. What do we now have to show for it? Bupkis...

    I'm betting most of Obama's 150 billion goes to the same folks whose continuing bribery of Congress brought us to this current state of affairs.

  • Bill Jones (unverified)
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    I'm betting most of Obama's 150 billion goes to the same folks whose continuing bribery of Congress brought us to this current state of affairs. JK: Agreed, much money will be wasted by going to the radical enviros who bribed congress into keeping our country’s vast resources locked up, forcing us to import more and more energy. The very same enviros who oppose every new drilling for gas or oil, every new power plant, oil refinery or gas pipe line. These people are the real culprits. Unfortunately, these multinational, multimillion dollar, corporations are household names such as the Sierra Club, Natural resources Defense Fund, Greenpeace etc.

    (I hope no one here got sucked into sending them money. If you did, you helped cause the increase in your heating cost and your gas cost, and you food cost!)

    It is enough to make one think that their real goal is to destroy modern society and put most of us in poverty

    Thanks JK

  • petr (unverified)
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    kevin,

    you're right, in standard geothermal maps nevada is number one and oregon is second. the map i linked to is a geothermal gradient map which is the rate of increasing temperature as you go further into the ground. EGS is premised on digging up to from 3 to 10 kilometers down; for the most part we haven't dug 10 km holes all across the country to actually measure the temperature, so the thermal gradient is used to estimate the temperatures further down. but of course it is all an estimate right now.

  • Mike Litt (unverified)
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    Here's a good idea to combat climate change. Solar energy from Arizona and other Southwestern states could actually provide a large fraction of the base load of US electricity. An article in January's Scientific American: A Solar Grand Plan proposes a plan to supply 69% of the U.S.' electricity and 35% of its total energy by 2050. Some key concepts of the plan are as follows:

    1. A vast area of photovoltaic cells would be erected in the Southwest. Excess daytime energy would be stored as compressed air in underground caverns to be tapped during nighttime hours.
    2. Large solar concentrator power plants would also be built.
    3. A new direct-current power transmission backbone would deliver solar electricity across the country.
    4. $420 billion in subsidies from 2011 to 2050 would be required to fund the infrastructure and make it cost-competitive.

    Because all of the components required have already been shown to be technically feasible, no revolutionary breakthroughs in technology are needed. Perhaps a combination of solar, wind and geothermal energy would provide the most economical, robust and reliable source of low-carbon electricity.

  • Bill Jones (unverified)
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    Great idea - pave over a few states with solar panels. I'll bet enviro lobby will be right on board for this one!

    Thanks JK

  • ned ludd (unverified)
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    the Germans faced a similar choice about 15 years ago. Instead of investing in new nuke plants (which their population also distrusts), they provided robust financial incentives (57 euro cents per kwh for building mounted photovoltaics) for individuals and businesses to purchase distributed generators. Besides creating an obvious incentive to conserve electricity, they jump-started a thriving solar industry.

    Here's how that has worked out in electriciy generated by solar power: 1990-.6 mgw 1991-1.0 mgw 1992-3.1 mgw 1993-3.5 mgw 1994-4.0 mgw 1995-5.9 mgw 1996-10.6 mgw 1997-14.5 mgw 1998-12.6 mgw 1999-16.5 mgw 2000-44.0 mgw 2001-80.0 mgw 2002-83.0 mgw 2003-145.0 mgw

    I don't have figures for 2004 or 05, but the total PV power generated in 2006 was 968 mgw.

    Oh yeah, they are now exporting their expertise and associated manufacturing to the rest of the world----as in Hillsboro, OR. As the Spaniards and the Italians are also doing.

    Maybe for once we can be as smart as the Europeans instead of following our free market geniuses off the economic cliff.

    BTW, when your solar panel wears down after 20 years, you can resmelt the polysilica and make new ones. And as someone has pointed out in an earlier post, because they're decentralized, they make really lousy targets.

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    Also the Germans have put in aggressive incentives for conservation i.e. non-use and materials reduction and externalized waste reduction by limits on corporate ability to externalize costs of methods of production onto the commons.

    Jim Karlock opposes paving states over with solar panels because he thinks it's unfair to asphalt.

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    Also the Germans have put in incentives for conservation i.e. non-use and materials and waste reduction by limits on corporate ability to externalize costs of methods of production onto the commons.

    Jim Karlock opposes paving states over with solar panels because he thinks it's unfair to asphalt.

  • (Show?)

    Also the Germans have put in incentives for conservation i.e. non-use and materials and waste reduction by limits on corporate ability to externalize costs onto the commons.

    Jim Karlock opposes paving states over with solar panels because he thinks it's unfair to asphalt.

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    Also the Germans have put in massive incentives for conservation.

    Jim Karlock opposes paving states over with solar panels because he thinks it's unfair to asphalt.

  • Bill Jones (unverified)
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    Here's how that has worked out in electriciy generated by solar power: 1990-.6 mgw 1991-1.0 mgw 1992-3.1 mgw 1993-3.5 mgw 1994-4.0 mgw 1995-5.9 mgw 1996-10.6 mgw 1997-14.5 mgw 1998-12.6 mgw 1999-16.5 mgw 2000-44.0 mgw 2001-80.0 mgw 2002-83.0 mgw 2003-145.0 mgw Trivial! Nuke-1000.0 mW each plant

    Thanks JK

    <

  • Kitty C (unverified)
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    I would like to point out to ned led that the 3700watts of solar panel on my roof only work in the day time, and they only cover half my energy costs. In addition the break even point is 15 years from date of install. It would hve been less but the Germans were buying up all the panels available, so the cost was very high. As much as I like the idea of being independent with solar panels, distributed nuclear power is the much better market solution, without the blockage from the extreme environmentalist.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
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    I was going to form a metaphor comparing nuclear power to heroin, but truth is, heroin is metabolized and soon gone. Nuclear waste lasts, in practical terms, forever. How many evil, insane administrations like the Shrubbery do you think we will elect in the next 50,000 years, folks who may do something irresponsible that frees some of that waste into the environment?

    About the only human caused disaster that could be worse would be out of control global warming resulting in a planet resembling Venus or Mars.

    If we could free ourselves for a while from the addictive qualities of modern technology, we might realize that life as lived now is not sustainable using any energy source we have imagined so far. This would not mean forgoing solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal [but certainly nuclear] energy, but realizing that simplifying, localizing and cutting back are our most important responsibilities.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
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    Who let the italics out?

  • Bill Jones (unverified)
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    I forgot to mention that nuke is available 24/7 while the solar is a available only about 6 hrs/day and drops to tiny amounts on cloudy days. Therefore solar requires 100% backup and can never provide a majority of power without storage. No practical large scale storage exists.

    Thanks JK

  • Floyd (unverified)
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    June 24, 2008

    As recently made clear in a recent House hearing on oil futures (index) speculation, lawmakers face a much more immediate energy crisis, the so-called “dark market.” Through proxies in London, index speculators (Goldman Sachs, and other big financial players) have “distorted the price discovery function” by flooding the commodity’s future market with money moved away from the mortgage/credit/banking meltdowns and into what is essentially an unregulated, overseas market. Financial Post on the hearings

    Some of the panelist at the hearing painted a pretty gloomy picture and predicted that if Congress does the right thing and rein in the traders, the oil bubble will burst sending financial shockwaves across the globe. A lot of pension fund money is at stake. On the other hand, if Congress fails to act $200/barrel is inevitable. One way or another, as people who know much more about this than me presented it, a lot of people are going to get hurt.

    That’s where American energy policy is today; as usual held hostage by the rich and special interests. Personally, I think we should nationalize big oil, at least for the time being. Gasoline in Mexico today cost about half what it is here, it’s state-owned. More here

    As for nukes, I think it’s only safe if established off-planet where waste can be safely evacuated and accident damage realistically limited. The big problem is transmitting the power back to Earth, although I doubt that technical difficulty would be insurmountable. New nan-o-fiber(?) materials will probably figure prominently. Thanks Arthur C. Clarke.

    GreenFloyd

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    JK objects to paving things with solar panels because he thinks it's unfair to asphalt.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
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    Ostriches actually do not bury their head in the sand, but they sometimes hide it in a shrub. Shrub, on the other hand, has his head up his ass as his administration shafts the rest of us.

    Some may wonder: if an email is never opened, does it really exist? Those with their heads not buried in denial realize that a problem does not cease to exist if is simply ignored.

    <h2>White House Refused to Open Pollutants E-Mail</h2>

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