Charles Darwin and Energy Policy

Aug. 20, 2008
By Lewis Tagliaferre

Well, I suppose you’ve heard all the news: Oil companies are enjoying record profits and GM is losing money fast, while Congress adjourned without passing a comprehensive energy plan. Maybe that’s because one does not exist yet – in spite of several high-profile proposals that are being scattered about. Energy is a very complex issue that won’t likely respond to my simplified opinion. And, we must realize that, unless you want the federal government to run all energy companies, no national plan is going to fit all producers equally. Nevertheless, I offer a composite plan gleaned from several experts for your enjoyment and discussion. It may be from a brain seared by the summer heat wave, so take it for what it’s worth.

First, everyone should recognize that all fossil fuels are limited by the total supplies of Earth and, therefore, should be maximized for their most effective use. Second, we must recognize that burning fossil fuels has an environmental-impact cost that should be factored into its price. It begins with a patriotic incentive program to replace all energy-generating and energy-consuming products with the most efficient devices that are economically sustainable, including appliances, buildings, and autos. In addition, a massive coordinated research and development program should be funded and conducted by all cooperating nations to create a hydrogen-based energy world, possibly through the United Nations, with the goal of escaping the demise of fossil fuels during this century. Since coal is our most abundant resource, it should be allocated primarily for generation of electricity in the cleanest form possible, consistent with economic cost (including land reclamation). U.S. exports of coal should be prohibited, except possibly to friendly trading partners with a balanced trade account and clean-burning standards equal to ours. The cost of all other forms of electricity should be pegged to the national average cost of coal with tax incentives to producers that level its economic advantage. Nuclear power should be our second main source of electricity, with emphasis on safety and waste management that would include domestic enrichment and recycling.

All renewable methods for generating electricity, hydro, solar, wind, and biomass should be encouraged and promoted through research, development, and incentives. The national electrical grid will soon be a common carrier of power among all utility companies; therefore, it must be granted top priority for national security, reliability, and domestic trade. It might even be nationalized (like the federal highway system) to remove it from the corporate mire that now plagues its reliability, and restructuring until it can be replaced by a better alternative as described below.

Natural gas should be removed from power generation and reserved for space heating and certain manufacturing applications, except for distributed combined heat and power plants (also explained below). A senator from Maine reported that 80 percent of the homes in her state are heated by oil. That would have to change in this plan. Our national economy is driven by oil used in transportation. Oil production is controlled by the OPEC cartel on international markets, which threatens our national security. About 85 percent of the world’s known oil reserves are used up, and most of them are under Arab Muslim nations in the Middle East. The remainder will be harder and harder to get; therefore, oil should be reduced for personal transportation and only expanded in the form of diesel fuel and jet fuel for commercial use. Because our domestic oil reserves are small and declining, attempts to increase domestic oil production will produce diminishing returns, but it can remain a short-term hedge against catastrophic prices. Dependence upon gasoline-powered, personal-auto engines should be phased out and replaced with natural gas and clean-burning diesel fuels and bio-fuels not made from corn (except for clean-gas-burning, two-wheeled individual vehicles, because I ride a maxi-scooter). One energy expert, Anne Korin at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, estimates that a plug-in hybrid personal auto running on 80-percent alcohol and 20-percent gasoline would get up to 500 miles per gallon of gas. Public-transportation vehicles should all be converted to natural-gas or clean-diesel engines.

There is one amendment to this ideal – and fictitious – comprehensive energy plan. (You cannot have a plan without amendments.) Generating electricity is a wasteful use of heat. The Intl. District Energy Association (IDEA) reports, “Almost 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption is used for power generation, and more than two-thirds of this fuel ends up as waste heat. Industrial processes and municipal operations also produce usable thermal energy in the form of stack gases, cooling water, and landfill gas. This energy can be recycled through combined heat and power.” There is such an option in cogeneration among combined heat and power (CHP) plants. They should be developed, encouraged, and implemented in building applications wherever possible. This goal means some big changes may be needed in business plans of utilities and building owners. If form follows function, as the architects claim, then energy issues will have to assume a far higher priority among designers and building owners, too. CHP should become a prime consideration, even for residential applications (

The following description is provided by the Midwest CHP Application Center: Combined heat and power systems for commercial, institutional, and industrial facilities incorporate multiple technologies for providing energy services to a single facility or to multiple facilities. Electricity to such facilities is provided by on-site or near-site power generators, using one or more of the many options: internal combustion engines, gas turbines, microturbines, and solar panels or fuel cells. In CHP systems, thermal energy in various exhaust streams from power-generation equipment is recovered for operating equipment for space and/or process cooling, heating, or controlling humidity in facilities by using absorption chillers, desiccant dehumidifiers, or heat-recovery equipment for producing steam or hot water. These integrated systems are known by a variety of acronyms: CHP, CHPB (Cooling, Heating, and Power for Buildings), CCHP (Combined Cooling, Heating, and Power), BCHP (Building Cooling, Heating, and Power), and IES (Integrated Energy System). CHP uses proven technology capable of providing reliable and efficient electricity and thermal energy in the form of heating, cooling, and steam, while ensuring lower impacts on air, water, and precious natural resources. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that CHP produces 46 GW of power. DOE’s goal is to double that supply to 92 GW by 2010. (Another CHP resource, including successful case histories and a free design manual, is the Northeast CHP Application Center.)

One CHP example reported by Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, is a combined heat and power project as a renewal and upgrade at its central heating plant, the heart of its international award-winning campus district heating system. It will add new, state-of-the-art equipment that produces electricity and heat together with significantly less energy than making them separately. It will complement the existing highly efficient campus cogeneration and hydroelectric facilities, and the lower total energy input will result in associated reductions in environmental emissions on campus and within New York. The CHP project will add two gas turbine generators, totaling a nominal 30,000 kilowatts of electrical output, with heat-recovery steam generators at the current central heating plant. Exhaust heat leaving the gas turbines will then provide the heat energy to produce steam for campus needs.

Case histories of successful CHP projects show that many hurdles must be overcome if new plans upset the business strategy of utility companies that focus only upon central power plants. Leaving the grid turns out to be anathema to many utility companies, and they may defend their balance sheets in court. But, that old paradigm may no longer be actionable as new forms of utility companies may be needed. A model for the new utility company could be Ever-Green Energy in St. Paul, MN, which set up District Energy St. Paul, a CHP energy system for that city. The company stipulates on its website as follows: District Energy St. Paul uses wood chips (biomass), natural gas, oil, or clean-burning coal to fuel its district heating and cooling systems. With the 2003 start-up of an adjacent wood-waste-fired combined heat and power plant managed by Ever-Green Energy, District Energy has reduced its reliance on coal and oil by 70 percent. Using a renewable fuel source produces significant environmental benefits and helps the community solve a local wood-waste disposal problem. District Energy St. Paul currently provides heating service to more than 185 buildings and 300 single-family homes, representing over 31.1 million square feet of building space, or 80 percent of St. Paul's central business district and adjacent areas. District Cooling St. Paul, a District Energy affiliate, currently provides air-conditioning service to more than 95 downtown St. Paul buildings, representing 18.8 million square feet. These buildings don’t need their own boilers or furnaces, hot water heaters, chillers, or air-conditioners; the District Energy system does that work for them. District Energy St. Paul customers benefit from reduced costs and the knowledge that they’re using an environmentally sustainable source of green energy to heat and cool their buildings.

Charles Darwin taught us that life forms must continually adapt to changes or die out. Energy policy poses just such a challenge to the human race that may be ignored at our peril. We’re racing into the future of energy, and time is running out for business as usual. Scientists estimate that 99 percent of all species now are extinct, but new ones are discovered regularly. If established institutions cannot adapt, then new institutions must be formed to capitalize on the changes. There is a Chinese proverb: If we don't change our course, we'll end up where we're headed.

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