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The Secretary of Synthetic Biology

Dave Cohen, ASPO-USA

In preparing for the future, it is very important to have a wide range of options and to think in advance about how we are going to react to the worst cases as well as the best.
—Kenneth Boulding

The road to hell is paved with good intentions
—ancient proverb

Last week’s column Steven Chu’s Energy Miscalculations1 attempted to answer the question what is the plan? for dealing with potential shortfalls in the world’s liquid fuels supply. The answer is let efficiency take care of it, at least in the foreseeable future 5, 10 or 15 years from now. Chu’s reasoning is based on his miscalculation that we have between 10 and 40 years before oil & natural gas production, taken together, will peak and decline. Efficiency is supposed to double the time we have to find replacement fuels, so Chu has recast the problem to give himself the 20 to 80 years he requires to find a way to replace oil.

Chu’s long range solution involves applications of synthetic biology to create 4th generation biofuels (Biopact, October 8, 2007). Last week I posed the questions is this a good solution? is it realistic? My critique should provide the answers.

You are probably asking what 4th generation biofuels are. Nobody actually knows yet. I can provide you with a conceptual overview and brief descriptions of the types of science problems that need to be solved. Beyond that there is only techno-optimism, a quasi-religious faith in the ability of cutting-edge science to solve our energy problems on the enormous scales required. Watch Charlie Rose’s interview with Chu to get a feel for the energy secretary’s faith. Here’s a tidbit.

CHARLIE ROSE: Listening to you, what I’m struck with is the point — is the connection between our energy future and our scientific know-how. The merger there, the convergence there is the essential link to get us out of this mess.

STEVEN CHU: I deeply believe that in my heart and soul, that science, when put to the task, can and will I think give us much better energy solutions.

[A transcript is also available.]

(26 March 2009)

Washington County puts its energy into saving energy
(peak oil advocate: “Not enough”)
Jill Rehkopf Smith, The Oregonian
In fall 2007, a memo went out that sent a chill — literally — up the spines of scores of Washington County employees: No more space heaters.

Not only do such heaters use about 1,500 watts an hour — compared with 60 to 250 watts for desktop computers — but they were also fooling nearby thermostats into stopping the officewide heat supply, sparking even more people to turn on their heaters.

At the time of the ban, a new heating system had improved the overall temperature. But some people still had to resort to electric heating pads or gel-pack hand-warmers.

Nancy Abdill, a management analyst, uses silk long underwear, a polar fleece blanket and vest, fingerless gloves and a mug of hot water to warm her insides and her icy hands. Still, she said, “I’m cold most of the time.”

The ban is one of many steps the county has taken to cut energy use and costs — a mission that is high-profile now in Washington, D.C., but has been part of Washington County’s agenda for years. Still, some people insist far too little is being done.

Currently, the most accessible and cost-effective step toward energy reform is efficiency, according to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who is doling out billions of federal stimulus dollars for efficiency projects.

Some will trickle into Washington County, whose efforts mirror what many cash-strapped or environmentally conscious homeowners are doing on a smaller scale.

… None of these steps is enough for Peter Lunsford.

“Implementing the Westside commuter rail and building a dozen LEED-certified buildings in each municipality each year is not going to do it,” said Lunsford, co-founder of Washington County Peak Oil, an informal group of concerned citizens who try to educate people about peak oil and how to prepare for it.

Peak oil is the idea that at some point, half of the world’s oil supply will have been extracted, after which oil will become more scarce and expensive, eventually crippling unprepared societies. Some people think oil reserves have peaked or will soon.

To prepare, Lunsford supports drastic energy cuts, along with increases in renewable and even nuclear power. He also believes the county should promote local food production on a Victory Garden scale and develop an “Energy Descent Action Plan.”

The peak oil concept is controversial on the Washington County board of commissioners, where Dick Schouten thinks it’s real but Andy Duyck is skeptical.
(26 March 2009)

Leaving PCs on overnight costs companies $2.8B a year

Jon Swartz, USA TODAY
Even during an economic meltdown, when companies are scrambling to cut costs, businesses are wasting billions of dollars by leaving their PCs on at night.

U.S. organizations squander $2.8 billion a year to power unused machines, emitting about 20 million tons of carbon dioxide — roughly the equivalent of 4 million cars — according to a report to be released Wednesday.

About half of 108 million office PCs in the USA are not properly shut down at night, says the 2009 PC Energy Report, produced by 1E, an energy-management software company, and the non-profit Alliance to Save Energy. The report analyzed workplace PC power consumption in the USA, United Kingdom and Germany.

Wastefulness does not just affect a company’s bottom line, it creates environmental concerns, the report says. If the world’s 1 billion PCs were powered down just one night, it would save enough energy to light the Empire State Building — inside and out — for over 30 years, it says.
(24 March 2009)

Greenwash: Shell betrays ‘new energy future’ promises

Fred Pearce, Guardian
The energy company has sold out on its renewable investments, claiming they are ‘not economic’

… Last week, this and other papers reported: “Shell will no longer invest in renewable technologies such as wind, solar and hydropower because they are not economic.”

In recent years, Shell has invested more than $1bn in the most commercial of the new renewable industries, wind power. It claims to have more than 500MW of wind power capacity altogether — the equivalent of half a regular power station.

It was chicken feed for them. But many hoped for more. Then last year, Shell pulled out of what would be the world’s largest offshore wind farm in the Thames estuary. The London Array would have tripled its wind capacity.

The company claimed at the time that it was going to concentrate its renewables business in the US. Now that promise has quietly disappeared. Last week, its head of gas and power, Linda Cook, told reporters: “We do not expect material amounts of investment [in wind and solar] going forward.” Biofuels will still get cash. Everything else is back into cold storage.

Why? “They continue to struggle to compete with other investment opportunities we have in our portfolio.” In other words, oil prices are back down and Shell is in this for the short term.

We are left with those, shall we say unfulfilled, ads.
(26 March 2009)