Energy – It Just Doesn’t Add Up

by | Jun 25, 2009

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brian-boeheimI’m close to turning 50 years old and I’m having energy déjà vu. Over the winter, fears of oil shortages put prices through the roof and energy production is being blamed for the climatic changes around the world.

For those who don’t remember, in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was predicted that oil wouldn’t last until the end of the 20th Century, and that CO2 emissions were going to put us into the next ice age. Let’s not forget all of the warnings to turn off lights when you leave a room and to keep your thermostats at 68 or below in the winter. My question is: “Why is it always about the consumer?”

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Don’t get me wrong, some good came out of the hysterical outcry of the 1970s to clean up our planet. With the horrific examples of pollution gone wild, like the Love Canal chemical dumping and Lake Erie catching on fire, it became easy for people to step back and realize something needed to be done.

The youth of the 1970s embraced the idea of a cleaner America, and it has led us to cleaner water, cleaner air, and cleaner streets than any time in our country’s industrialized history.

Moving to the “bad,” political leaders and corporations have been taking advantage of our desire to do the “right thing” ever since.

Recently, we’ve been regulated into using mercury laden fluorescent lights, which unquestionably has a negative impact on the environment. Why are we focusing on the consumer, instead of focusing on changing regulations on production that would allow for massive improvement in power plant efficiencies? We are told to reduce our consumption of electricity, but wouldn’t it make more sense for us to produce our own power to create a net savings?

Here are some truths: 1) the greatest contributor to CO2 emissions is farm animals, not cars or power plants; 2) only 5 percent of nuclear waste is used nuclear material, while the rest is protective clothing, tools, and parts; 3) only one third of the energy put into a power plant comes out as electricity, the rest is wasted; 4) 5-10 percent of the electricity produced is lost on the way to the consumer; 5) our electricity demand will double by 2030.

Common Sense

There is one problem that needs to be solved: “How do we responsibly produce enough electricity to satisfy a technologically advancing society?” Believe it or not, the answer is simpler than you might think.

First, we need to change the regulations that have the power industry hamstrung. Currently, utilities have their rates set to earn a revenue stream that provides them with a constant 10-13 percent rate of return based on operating costs. Increases or decreases of the operating costs of electricity production are passed directly through to the consumers. The idea was to prevent utilities from charging monopoly rates for their commodity.

The dilemma is that any revenue created in an attempt to make a plant more energy efficient or productive would have to go 100 percent to the customers. If the plant developed a system for recovering heat, normally lost during production, and distributed it as a very low cost way for local home owners to heat their homes, the utility stockholders couldn’t benefit one cent.

Or, what if energy production could be made more efficient through replacing a more expensive cooling tower with new less expensive technology? Again, this would cost the stockholders by forcing them to incur the capital expenditure, but since their operating cost would go down it would negatively impact their revenue and in turn their total return.

This regulatory process puts a huge roadblock in the way of investing in power plant efficiencies and actually supports the building of expensive, inefficient plants.

Second, it is time we ignore the self-serving and erroneous cries that nuclear power is dangerous. Not only could we produce more clean power, but it would provide an economic stimulus by providing jobs for half a million people over for the next 20 years.

It’s also time to provide a power grid that is national and not just regional. We need to be able to send wind power from the plains of the Midwest to Chicago, Denver, Dallas, and St. Louis. Until we have a high voltage, intelligent, power grid, we’ll be at risk of bumping our heads on the ever increasing electrical needs of Americans.

Third, and finally, we need to do some out of the box thinking. We have received our power from the “power company” our entire lives. This has blinded us from the obvious. No matter how many power plants we build, and how sophisticated our grid becomes, transporting electricity is a very inefficient and costly methodology for bringing power into the home.

We need to focus our attention on providing micro-power technology which will allow all individual homes and businesses the ability to cost effectively utilize a combination of solar, wind, and natural gas to make them energy self-sufficient.

Imagine your business with a set of 24-inch fan blades and thin film solar panels installed on the roof. This passive energy would be supplemented with a natural gas furnace and generator which could not only heat the building, but also provide it with electricity. This combination would provide uninterrupted power that could potentially cost 20-30 percent less, while providing an alternate solution to the near impossible task of doubling our national electrical output by 2030. Now that’s a legacy this generation could be proud to leave behind.

Brian Boeheim is author of the new book, “Political Common Sense For America: Energy – It Just Doesn’t Add Up.”

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