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article: 14 Feb 06

If you read my posting on 31 Jan you know I didnít watch or listen to the State of the Union address. I have taken a few minutes to read through it since then, and I offer my observations on the Presidentís comments on energy. In case you havenít yet heard what he said, or need to refresh your memory, letís start with the text of that part of his speech:

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources -- and we are on the threshold of incredible advances.

So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research -- at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.

Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.

In the first paragraph he lays out the problem with remarkable frankness. Iím actually very favorably impressed and I applaud the President for addressing the issue.

The second paragraph raises red flags and questions:

  • I did fairly extensive research on coal-fired power plants as part of my graduate work in Environmental Studies. Any time you burn a fossil fuel (either petroleum or coal) you release the fossil carbon into the atmosphere. Where do the CO and CO2 go? Is it even possible to have a zero-emission coal fired plant? If so, how much would it cost? And, given that we can solve those problems, where does the coal come from and at what cost to the environment? Mining coal in an environmentally responsible manner, while possible, requires (among other things) a great deal of water. Most of the United Statesí coal is located in Western states, which barely have sufficient water for their current needs. Even if we solve this problem, we still have to face the fact that coal is not a renewable resource.
  • While I applaud efforts to advance the technology for solar and wind power, what about Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), another clean and renewable energy source.
  • Any call for nuclear energy (even if he could pronounce it correctly) must also address the issues of decommissioning and waste storage. Until we solve those problems we have no right to build another nuclear plant and leave that kind of legacy to our children and their children for countless generations to come.
  • The President missed an opportunity here to raise a very important point. How much we power our homes and offices is at least as important as how we power them. Conservation can yield serious results as well as serious returns on investment.
Having spent years studying the issue, I disagree completely with the third paragraph. A switch to electric or hydrogen cars does not mean cleaning up the environment, it merely shifts the damage from your tailpipe to the smokestack at the power plant. Ethanol actually requires more energy to produce than it makes available; deficit spending may work for the President in the national economy, but it will not work for anyone in the energy economy. One other thing we need to consider - ethanol cannot match the thermodynamic properties of either gasoline or diesel as a fuel for cars and trucks.

All of this brings us to the fourth paragraph. Replace 75% of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025? If the peak oil arguments are anywhere close to right we need to replace 100% of our oil imports from the Middle East within 10 years, not 75% within 19 years.

Far from disrupting our economy (as $10/gallon gas in few years will), the plan I propose provides for a very smooth transition from fossil petroleum to biomass based gasoline. If the President is serious about this I call on him to set a goal of reducing our use of fossil oil by 99% in the next four years. We can do this using existing technology. We have an historic precedent for doing this within a four-year time frame. We need to do it as a matter of national security, as a matter of environmental stewardship and as a matter of economic sanity.

You can find the details of my proposal spelled out in The Manifesto for a True American Century and my Open Letter to President George W. Bush.

[the open letter to President Bush was emailed at 5:15 p.m. PST on 14 Feb 2006]

© 2006 Geo. McCalip