Dirty South Bureau

April 21, 2011

My response to Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice, or, Poorly executed falsehoods at the Gulf Coast Leadership Summit

Filed under: energy,environment,Louisiana — christian @ 6:42 pm

This morning I had the pleasure of attending the Gulf Coast Leadership Summit’s meeting: “Strategies for Developing Clean Energy in the U.S. Gulf Coast”.

The Gulf Coast Leadership Summit was an odd sort of conference. In a hotel conference room (nothing good happens in hotel conference rooms), well-dressed, well-heeled professionals and politicians discussed the future of our region. Which is problematic, as many of these “leaders” are the very people who have enacted and supported political decisions to assure that we have no future.

I am speaking specifically of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, Representative Steve Scalise, former Representative Joseph Cao, and of course, Charles Rice, the new CEO of Entergy New Orleans.


Hoary lies: Entergy and renewables

Mr. Rice was a panelist on the “strategies for developing clean energy” panel, which is also odd; as he does not appear to have any strategies or interest in developing clean energy. Instead, he offered a series of poorly thought out and disingenuous excuses, which – sorry, Louisiana – utility executives do not dare to try in other parts of this nation or the developed world.

Among Mr. Rice’s statements, one stood out as truly absurd – his claim that “wind is five times as expensive as natural gas”. It was very unfortunately that my one question – the only one that was allowed – was limited by a hostile moderator who claimed that we had gone over time. However, Mr. Rice asked me to back up my statement, which was that natural gas is around six cents a kilowatt-hour and wind eight to nine, so I will.

LCOE details – how much do wind and natural gas cost?

Now, the technical details. First, we tend to measure this cost in levelized cost of electricity – the cost of power produced over the lifetime of generation units. This is problematic and somewhat arbitrary for several reasons. First, for those energy sources with fuel inputs – like natural gas – the costs of these inputs have to be estimated. Second, organizations tend to have their own proprietary LCOE models.

Third, the cost of any type of generation depends upon the region. However, since Mr. Rice made such a broad statement, I assume we are talking about national averages.

A quick web search found Energy Information Administration (EIA) data offering U.S. levelized costs 2009 for plants entering service in 2016. The EIA is a problematic source. Among other deficiencies, they tend to vastly under-report solar electric (photovoltaic) electricity generation, but they are a good starting point.

The EIA estimates natural gas plants at between USD 0.0631/kWh for advanced combined cycle plants and USD 0.0661 for conventional combined cycle plants. Other natural gas technologies are as high as USD 0.1245/kWh.

Or as I said – six cents per kWh.

The report also estimates wind at USD 0.097/kWh, however it also assumes that the best sites for wind will be taken, and that generation will move to less favorable areas. The cost it estimates for the best sites is USD 0.082/kWh.

OK – eight to ten (not nine) cents per kWh.

Greentech media researcher Brett Prior gave similar numbers a 2010 report, but put wind at USD 0.074/kWh and combined cycle natural gas plants at USD 0.062/kWh.

Just for reference – we who live in New Orleans pay a retail rate of around USD 0.14/kWh – well above both of these costs. I highly doubt that Entergy is getting USD 0.06/kWh out of its cranky, inefficient old Michoud natural gas plant, which it runs to supply a portion of our demand at times of peak power usage.


Renewable energy in Louisiana – sugar and sun

Clearly this was a clumsy attempt to discredit renewables, but it was also a red herring. Like the rest of the Deep South, Louisiana has very limited land-based wind resources.

What we have, in spades, is biomass in the form of crop residues – notably sugarcane bagasse and rice hulls, as well as lumber mill residues. All of these residues are already brought to a central location for processing.

Bagasse is also already burned to supply steam and power – but not efficiently, as sugar mill owners cannot get a decent price for their power from Entergy, and thus do not invest in modern, efficient boilers.

We also have moderately good solar potential – though far better than Germany (the world solar leader), or Ontario (North America’s second largest solar market).

Solar is significant for our state for a number of reasons. It was noted during the panel that we get only five or so hours of peak solar output per day, which Mr. Rice used as an excuse to discredit solar as a source of power.

What Mr. Rice did not mention is that these are the five hours when we most need power, and when it is most expensive for Entergy to generate electricity to feed our need for, among other things, air conditioning.

This greater need for power during some periods is called peak load.


Solar and putting a price on peak load

What does supplying peak load cost, in terms of dollars and cents? I have been searching for an answer to this question for some time. Recently, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) put out a program for mid-sized renewables, which while lackluster (far better than any utility policy Entergy has put forward) offered a novel price approach – rates paid are for time of generation, both by time of day and month.

The lowest rate paid for the program is for generation at night during the winter, at USD 0.0443. The highest rate is for afternoons in summer months, at USD 0.160.

The TVA values power produced during peak periods almost four times as highly. Which is relevant because the TVA’s service area – Tennessee, Kentucky, and Northern Alabama and Mississippi – has a similar climate. If anything, peak power should be worth more in Louisiana, where the need for summer cooling is more intense.

So in truth, we should compare solar not to our average electricity rates, but some multiple thereof, as solar produces the most power during these periods. And suddenly solar is not so expensive.

I will also note that the choice of natural gas is the most favorable to Entergy. Entergy is the second largest operator of nuclear power plants, and last time I checked the River Bendd Plant (one of two nuke plants in Louisiana – the other, Waterford 3, is in Killona) was looking to install a new reactor.

The IEA’s estimate for “advanced” nuclear is USD 0.1139, which is actually quite favorable, as many estimates are putting nuclear much higher due to escalating costs for engineering services and steel, not to mention the inevitable cost overruns that the nuclear industry is famous for.

Of course, none of this includes the other costs associated with Entergy’s fuels of choice – nuclear and natural gas, including the poisoning of groundwater from fracking to obtain shale gas, the issues of spent fuel disposal from nuclear power, or multiple safety issues with both technologies.

Conclusion: the problem is our utility

Diversification of our energy sources to include renewable energy is a financially viable if not superior option for practically all regions of the world, Louisiana and the Deep South included. All that is needed are the policies to make this happen.

It would be wonderful if we could all sit down at the table, sing Kumbabaya, and build a clean energy economy. But some people are not interested in Louisiana developing its renewable energy potential.

Entergy wants to keep us dependent upon dirty, dangerous natural gas and nukes, and has fought tooth and nail, with small armies of lawyers, to assure that we do not develop 21st century clean energy industries. I saw this personally while part of the Alliance for Affordable Energy’s campaign for a renewable portfolio standard in 2009-2010.

So if you wonder why we have no real renewable energy development in Louisiana, and no “green jobs”, look no further than that large, dark building in the CBD. And your power bill.

April 9, 2011

Fukushima on the Gulf Coast: What the media isn’t telling you about the human costs of energy disasters

Watching the tragedy in Fukushima unfold, in recent weeks, I saw a sickening replay of a familiar script. As the magnitude of the dangers posed by the radiation leaks and ongoing failure to control the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were unveiled, their coverage on the main pages of world news outlets decreased.

You could blame it on the public; we have short attention spans. You don’t have to be very far away from these disasters, it seems, to become easily jaded. But if the American public has short attention spans, I will argue that it is because we have been trained to be so, by the Pavlovian conditioning of the daily assault of mass media and advertising. Easily distracted people are easy to sell things to.

But more importantly, easily distracted people also easily forget what their neighbors are going through, even if these are grave crimes. Which serves the spin-masters in the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company just as well as it has our own U.S. government and BP for the past year. If you can hide the worst details of a disaster in the early days, when they come out later fewer people are paying attention.

Which is exactly has happened in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Not yet a year has passed, and the coverage of the real costs to people who live on the Gulf Coast of this disaster are utterly absent from the pages of mainstream American media.

Which is what I am asking you, reader, to overcome.

The gross failure of the media

As a journalist I am particularly angry about the role that the media has played and is playing in downplaying the risks that people face from these disasters, a pattern which I have witnessed both in Fukushima and in the oil flood following the Deepwater Horizon accident.

In our complex, technological, contemporary society the media fills a very important role in informing the public about what is actually going on in the world. However, it seems that to many media outlets and journalists, this role is secondary to managing public perceptions. The role that journalists take mirror that of government and corporate public relations, in that keeping the public calm takes priority.

Or it could be that many journalists themselves do not do sufficient research to find out what the real dangers are. However, I find that highly unlikely given how easy it is to find much of this information from credible sources.

Regardless of why, in both disasters the majority of large, and some local media outlets have failed us by failing to warn the public of the actual dangers that we face from these disasters. The most obvious way was by not warning the public of the worst health effects, though it is significant that the media also frequently fails to report on these health effects as they are revealed.

Media failures in Fukushima

For a long time I was a big fan of the BBC. I felt like I was getting a more balanced, more global, less corporate-influenced version of the news. That confidence is gone. Again and again I have watched the BBC downplay the dangers that the Japanese people face, even as the United States government set a much higher recommended evacuation zone and the head of France’s nuclear agency stated that the accident is an INES level 6 – the second highest rating, less severe only than Chernobyl.

Meanwhile, the BBC, which seems to be taking its cues from the Japanese government, has repeatedly cited the Japanese government’s absurd initial rating of INES level 4. The Japanese government later admitted that the accident is an INES level 5, days after U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the world that the accident was worse than Three Mile Island (a five on the INES scale.)

I now realize there are Judith Millers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Japanese government is interested in downplaying its own liability for allowing Tokyo Electric Power Company to build these plants on a fault line. It doesn’t want a huge health disaster on its hands, and it appears to be doing what President Barack Obama’s administration did after the Deepwater Horizon oil flood – lying its way out of responsibility for what had happened and its inability (unwillingness?) to control a large corporation.

Meanwhile, not only the BBC but a number of media organizations seemed to go out of their way to downplay radiation fears, regurgitating official statistics about the lack of cancer deaths associated with past nuclear accidents. But as the child of a cancer survivor, I know that when someone gets cancer, you never know exactly why, so it is impossible to track all the cases of cancer to which exposure to radiation contributed.

And again, I must cite conflict of interest: government officials have a material interest in not being liable for giving people cancer, not having to deal with public health crises in which they may be implicated, and not interrupting the status quo of power generation.

It is interesting to note that I have seen this in other stories by the BBC, including a story about an Taiwanese factory producing iPhones were workers were exposed to n-hexane, a chemical found in the blood of Gulf Coast residents. The article mentions more superficial effects, but never that n-hexane is toxic to the nervous system.

In high enough doses radiation causes cancer and birth defects. Let’s be clear on that one. The Fukushima disaster has led to very high levels of radioactivity in the ocean and in the air near the plants.


Media failures in the Gulf Coast BP oil disaster

This all follows the play book I saw after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Again and again I watched both U.S. national media and the New Orleans Times-Picayune fall down on the job.

In May 2010, Journalist Tom Philpott of Grist Magazine reported that one of the main ingredients in one of the two varieties of Corexit that BP was spraying contained 2-Butoxyethanol, which causes birth defects and testicular damage in rats (no data for human testing is available for obvious reasons). NIH analysis here: http://hazmap.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/hazmap_generic?tbl=TblAgents&id=129

I never saw the words “birth defects” “reproductive harm” or “testicular damage” in any of the media coverage following the gulf oil flood until a group I worked with organized a rally in Baton Rouge to call for an end to the spraying of Corexit, specifically citing these dangers. After that, the concept again disappeared from the media.

Even when legendary Chemist Wilma Subra (winner of the 2011 Global Exchange Human Rights Award) came to New Orleans to directly address the issue of impacts of the oil and dispersant, and specifically addressed the potential for birth defects, miscarriages and reproductive harm, the Times-Picayune still failed to talk about these dangers.

The article produced, which was better than many before it, specifically mentioned: “skin irritation, nausea, headaches and vomiting… liver and kidney damage, cardiac arrhythmia and chronic respiratory problems”. Journalist Bill Barrow also mentioned that benzene causes cancer – one of the few times that I have seen the word “cancer” in the media connected to this disaster.

Having your child born deformed is many magnitudes of severity greater than skin irritation.

On a technical note, a common practice has been to solely quote Material Safety Data Sheets. Which is dumb. Producing MSDS sheets is the responsibility of the manufacturer, which is a clear conflict of interest. They frequently do not include the most dangerous long-term effects. For a serious accounting of dangers, I refer to the National Institute of Health’s Haz-Map program – a program produced by a credible government organization that is a few steps removed from liability, and does not have the direct competing interests as do the corporations that make dangerous chemicals.

I must also note that in addition to Grist, one other media outlet deserves praise for their forthright coverage of what is happening in the Gulf: Al Jazeera. Looking at their coverage of this disaster, one wonders if Al-Jazeera exists on the same planet as the Times-Picayune and the BBC.

I never thought I would join the activists in Mobile Alabama in praising a media network from a monarchy in the Middle East for their coverage of a local issue. We truly live in strange times.

What is going on in the Gulf

I have very bad news for Gulf residents, which I have waited until after Mardi Gras to deliver for my New Orleans readers.

We have evidence that the seafood from the Gulf is contaminated with high levels of poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, and that the FDA instead changed the acceptable levels to avoid warning you.

Cleanup workers and residents who live in coastal parishes and counties the near the Gulf have been poisoned. A large number are reporting serious health effects, and the blood tests that have come back from some of those suffering these health effects show highly elevated levels of highly toxic hydrocarbons including benzene (which causes cancer), ethylbenze (which may cause cancer, damages the liver, and is toxic to the nervous system), xylene and hexane (which is toxic to the nervous system).

This information is all from the National Institute of Health’s Haz-Map program and Chemist Wilma Subra. The full information from Ms. Subra is available here: http://leanweb.org/news/latest/making-the-connection-2011.html.

I refer you to the earlier information about 2-butoxyethanol and birth defects and reproductive harm. Since we have seen every other health impact associated with these chemicals, there is no reason to believe that we will not see these.

In case you didn’t get the memo the first time around, the government will not tell you, there is a serious health crisis in parts of Southeast Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Gulf Coast, and it is not going away because the cameras have left.

We must transition from fossil fuels and nuclear power

I pray for the residents of Fukushima Prefecture and the residents of Northern Japan, as well as for the residents of the Gulf that none of their families must suffer this terrible outcome, as did families in the Ukraine and Belarus following the Chernobyl disaster.

But we must be clear – cancer, birth defects, and the poisoning of whole regions – these are the human costs of our dependence upon unsustainable energy sources, the drive of large corporations to make a profit at any cost, and the deep collusion between governments and corporations. We will pay them again and again until we make profound changes in the way we use energy, and change the structure of our society.

Moving to a sane and sustainable energy and transportation infrastructure – meaning renewable energy, high speed rail and other forms of efficient mass transit – isn’t just about feeling good about “going green”. It is about people’s lives – whether that is in Navarre Beach Florida, Venice Louisiana, or Fukushima, Japan.

In the short run, people on the Gulf Coast need to have this addressed as a real health crisis and the result of a poisoning, so that they can access the resources that they need.

April 3, 2011

Oath of Menes

Filed under: environment — christian @ 8:15 pm

I don’t normally post fiction to this blog, or other people’s work. However I recently had the pleasure of meeting a man who has written a beautiful piece that speaks to the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and our relationship to nuclear power. Without further ado, I present the Oath of Menes, by William Simmons of Van Horn, Texas.

Oath of Menes
 
 
My name is Menes, Eternal King over Egypt, and first Pharaoh in Upper Egypt. I have reigned here since 3100 years before what you in the West call the Common Era, or for about 5100 years.
 
I started my reign here at around the same time that we thought to write down the events of our lives. We carved these writings into stone; but 400 years after the start of my reign, one of my servants devised a material called papyrus, and we started recording on it many more of the events of our lives.
 
Over the centuries, we recorded how we strove with each other, and how we strove with other peoples around us. Apart from our own internal wars, we fought with, and overcame, and sometimes were overcome by, the Persians, the Hyksos, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Phoenicians, the Philistines, the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Crusaders, the Turks, the French, the English, and, now, the Israelis.
 
We wrote down many things, but some things I regarded as too precious to record. At the beginning of my reign, the gods revealed to us a potent source of power contained in a few sacred metals. These metals had to be refined, and highly purified in order to harness their power. But after they were purified, they became dangerous to all living things which approached them. The gods would permit me to use them, but only if I would swear an eternal oath to take custody of this material until it was no longer a danger to the sons of man.

Alas, in my avarice for power, I undertook this obligation, which is why I stll linger, and have not yet laid my head to rest and joined the rest of my people.
 
Over the centuries, I held firm to my solemn oath in the knowledge that, by discharging it faithfully, I would be protecting the sons and daughters of man from the results of my own pride. But, less than one short century ago, what was given to me by the gods, you discovered yourselves, and now you are playing with the sacred metals, having taken no oath to protect either yourselves, or your children, from its ravages.
 
And, now, I despair in my soul of my oath. I have watched as you have indulged in the same acts of hubris in which I indulged so long ago; but you commit these acts without the willingness to take on the yoke of obligation to protect your people. For all the 5100 years that I have lingered on this earth, I have not yet discharged even one-fifth of my oath for the Plutonium-239, and not even one-millionth of my oath for the Uranium-235.
 
Let me tell you clearly that you will not be able to responsibly care for these metals and guard your children unless you are willing to live nearly forever. As I have watched human history unfold, I have not seen one dynasty, kingdom, regime, civilization, or political system which has endured long enough to actually undertake a responsible commitment to protect others from these metals. I alone have lingered on this earth for 51 centuries, and I have only discharged one-fifth of my obligation for the metal with the shortest half-life. And, after I retreated with my metals to the underworld, my kindom was overrun by the Persians, the Hyksos, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Crusaders, the Turks, the French, the English, and the Israelis.  Any plan to responsibly maintain custody of these metals cannot endure such upheavals–not to mention the unpredictable ravages of the gods: earth tremors, mountains of fire, towering waves, blinding winds, ruinous rains, blistering sun, and bone-chilling cold.
 
I tell you bluntly that humankind is incapable of being a responsible custodian of these metals, even if he wanted to be. In the first place, he does not live long enough. Moreover, the institutions, which he might set up to act as a custodian of these metals, do not last long enough, because man is too given to war. The civilizations which he erects rise and fall like the tide on the shoals of human history.  Any commitment to maintain custody over fuels so long since spent will fade quickly in the memories of the sons of man.  And, in the end, man is primarily concerned with himself, and not nearly concerned enough for his neighbor.  To think that man has even the remotest chance of bringing such an awesome commitment to term is the height of hubris.