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Dark days for energy efficiency

John Carey, Business Week
After years of research, Charles Bates is close to perfecting a more energy-efficient method for casting engine blocks, a technique that industry would love to put into wider use. The University of Alabama engineer, who uses X-rays to monitor the shaping of molten metal, says only one big technical hurdle remains in refining a process that uses 30% less energy than traditional casting methods. “We’ve been making progress by leaps and bounds,” he adds.

But Bates may be stopped short. The U.S. Energy Dept. wants to slash funding for the efficiency program that supports his work. This perplexes the foundry industry. “It’s a great program, and we’d be sorry to see it go,” says Bryan Baker, vice-president of Vulcan Engineering, which supplies casting equipment to General Motors (GM ), BMW, and others.

Across the board, federal funding for energy efficiency is taking a major hit. In the White House’s proposed 2007 budget, efficiency spending is down 17% overall from 2006 appropriations, and 25% from levels in 2002. The cuts are deeper for individual programs. Research to help industry reduce energy use is slated for a 30% decrease, and some programs are being shut down.

As a result, “we would be leaving a lot of energy on the table,” says Peter Molinaro, vice-president of Dow Chemical.

Bush Administration officials profess support. “Efficiency is among my highest priorities,” insists Assistant Energy Secretary Alexander Karsner. But an increasing share of research money is going to biofuels and hydrogen instead. “They talk the talk but are pulling the rug out from under these programs just when they are needed most,” says R. Neal Elliott of the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
(1 May 2006)
Article requires log-in. A large excerpt from the article is online at Daniel Gross’s blog (scroll down a few paragraphs).

`American Experience’ examines the building of the Alaskan Oil pipeline

Hartford Courant
When oil was discovered on Alaska’s North Slope in 1968, the oil industry was so confident about getting the OK to build a pipeline that it ordered $100 million of pipe before there was a single design drawing.

What it didn’t consider was the permafrost, which prevented burial of the pipeline along half of its 800-mile route to the port of Valdez, necessitating an aboveground pipe.

And there were other obstacles, including the then- burgeoning environmental movement. According to the fascinating report on “The Alaska Pipeline” on “American Experience” (WGBY, Channel 57, 9 p.m.; CPTV, 10 p.m.), it wasn’t until the oil shortages of the ’70s that the pipeline finally got kick-started. It eventually cost more than $8 billion and employed 78,000 people, creating a boon for Alaska while cutting through miles of public lands. More oil than expected has flowed from the pipe – 15 billion barrels so far – but obviously has not freed the U.S. from dependence on foreign oil.
(24 April 2006)
The program website has much online material.
Recommended by reader ED:

Last night on PBS, The American Experience was about the building of the Alaska Pipeline – a well told story about the difficulties, costs and politics as well as the logistical enormity of building such a large project during the time of Americas own “Peaking”. Started in 1970 and taking 7-8 years to build and costing almost 10 times the original estimate, the Prudhoe Bay oil field was located in a very inhospitable place. Although many made fortunes they lived in virtual prisons. This put Alaska on the map and financially brought it into the 20th century “kicking and screaming”. A worthy watch for any Peak Oil person interested in pipeline infrastructure.

Why nuclear power cannot be a major energy source

David Fleming, FEASTA
It takes a lot of fossil energy to mine uranium, and then to extract and prepare the right isotope for use in a nuclear reactor. It takes even more fossil energy to build the reactor, and, when its life is over, to decommission it and look after its radioactive waste.

As a result, with current technology, there is only a limited amount of uranium ore in the world that is rich enough to allow more energy to be produced by the whole nuclear process than the process itself consumes. This amount of ore might be enough to supply the world’s total current electricity demand for about six years.

Moreover, because of the amount of fossil fuel and fluorine used in the enrichment process, significant quantities of greenhouse gases are released. As a result, nuclear energy is by no means a ‘climate-friendly’ technology.

1. Nuclear energy could sustain its present minor contribution of some 2-1/2 percent of global final energy demand for about 75 years, but only by postponing indefinitely the expenditure of energy that would be needed to deal with its waste.
2. Each stage in the nuclear life-cycle, other than fission itself, produces carbon dioxide.
3. The depletion problem facing nuclear power is as pressing as the depletion problem facing oil and gas.
4. The depletion of uranium becomes apparent when nuclear power is considered as a major source of energy. For instance, if required to provide all the electricity used worldwide – while clearing up the new waste it produced – it could (notionally) do so for about six years before it ran out of usable rich uranium ore.
5. Alternative systems of nuclear fission, such as fast-breeders and thorium reactors, do not offer solutions in the short/medium term.
6. The overall climate impact of the nuclear industry, including its use of halogenated compounds with a global warming potential many times that of carbon dioxide, needs to be researched urgently.
7. The option that a nation such as the United Kingdom has of building and fuelling a nuclear energy system on a substantial and useful scale is removed if many other nations attempt to do the same thing.
8. The response must be to develop a programme of “Lean Energy”. Lean Energy consists of: (1) energy conservation and efficiency; (2) structural change to build local energy systems; and (3) renewable energy; all within (4) a framework, such as tradable energy quotas (TEQs), leading to deep reductions in energy demand.
9. That response should be developed at all speed, free of the false promise and distraction of nuclear energy.

David Fleming delivered the 2001 Feasta Lecture. He is an independent writer in the fields of energy, environment, economics, society and culture and lives in London. He first published proposals for TEQs (formerly Domestic Tradable Quotas – DTQs) in 1996. TEQs are set in their context in his two forthcoming books, The Lean Economy: A Survivor’s Guide to a Future that Works, and Lean Logic: The Book of Environmental Manners. He is founder of The Lean Economy Connection, an extended conversation between people who are thinking ahead.
(April 2006)
Long report. Also available as PDF – 12 pages.

How far can you drive on a bushel of corn?
Crunching the numbers on alternative fuels

Mike Allen, Popular Mechanics
…In the past 18 months, the war in Iraq, a Texas oil refinery fire and drilling rig shutdowns caused by hurricanes–not to mention mounting worries over global warming–have all contributed to a sense of urgency to revamp the way America’s vehicles run. Rising oil prices are leading skeptics to take another look at formerly ignored alternative automotive fuels. Ethanol is getting the most attention–but interest is growing in methanol and even leftover french fry oil for use in diesel engines. In addition to these biofuels, research continues into electricity and natural gas as vehicle power sources. Department of Energy (DOE) policy calls for eventually making a transition to a hydrogen-based economy. And President Bush has recently stated that he wants hydrogen-powered cars on the market by 2020.

Ethanol, king of the challengers to petroleum, is already found blended with gasoline at pumps across the country, and production is continuing to ramp up. Ethanol is probably the main fuel President Bush had in mind both in February, when he announced the Advanced Energy Initiative, and last summer, when he signed new energy rules into law. That legislation established a renewable-fuels standard that will require the use of 7.5 billion gal. of ethanol and biodiesel annually by 2012–a nearly 90 percent increase over today’s usage–and extended tax benefits that favor both fuels.

In the lab, many gasoline alternatives look good. Out on the road, automotive engineers have a lot of work to do, and energy companies have new infrastructure to build, before very many people can drive off into a petroleum-free future. And, there’s the issue of money. Too often, discussions of alternative energy take place in an alternative universe where prices do not matter.

For this special report, PM crunched the numbers on the actual costs and performance of each major alternative fuel. Before we can debate national energy policy–or even decide which petroleum substitutes might make sense for our personal vehicles–we need to know how these things stack up in the real world.
(May 2006 issue)
Eight-page report. Especially interesting is their comparison of different fuels – what it would take to power a Honda Civic from New York to California (see The Great Alt-Fuel Rally – PDF)