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The Black Commentator - Energy Days at the University of Texas

I crashed last Monday's University of Texas symposium on "Ending America's Oil Addiction". Unlike most events UT has, word of this one got out to the general public via an announcement in the paper. It was sponsored by the Jackson Energy Studies School, a very new department that is a co-production of the Engineering and Business departments and the LBJ School. The panel featured Michael Webber, an associate professor from the Mechanical Engineering department, James Steinberg, a dean from the LBJ school, and Roger Duncan, ex-Austin City Councilmember and for the last decade, a VP at the City's electric department. (Austin is rare in owning its own power generation plants; AE is a full, large, electric utility.) The star of the panel was David Sandalow, the Brookings Institute's resident expert on energy issues, who was there in part to promote his new book, Freedom From Oil: How the Next President Can End the United States' Oil Addiction.

Each of the panelists received ten minutes for their presentation, a time limit that was waived for the guest from Brookings. UT led off with Michael Webber talking knowledgeably about how plans for the energy future had to meet the basic laws of physics and chemistry, something of which proponents of various schemes in the past had not seemed to be fully aware. Ten minutes wasn't nearly enough to get a complex idea across, and while Webber was a good speaker, he wasn't in the same speaking ability league as the professional politician and the two amateurs. Webber needed more of a platform than he was given. Speaking with him afterwards, I discovered that he is pioneering two courses on energy, one graduate and one undergraduate, dreadfully important, overdue and sorely needed. I asked him what books he was using, and for his undergraduate course. He is using Vaclav Smil's Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties, and for his graduate course he is using Energy, a guidebook, by Janet Ramage. Damned good books, both. Webber was interested that I'd read both books, and confessed that he hadn't read all of either of them. Ahh, the University of Texas - it hasn't changed a lick after all these years.

LBJ's James Steinberg spoke, and admitted up front that he really didn't know that much about energy issues. That certainly didn't stop him from speaking at length about political factors in energy policies. Steinberg reminded me of many of my Government department professors at UT 25 years ago, the ones who had gotten a job there at UT while they were between political jobs or campaigns. Voluble talkers, no real depth of knowledge about any subject, least of all scientific/technical ones. They all had a big streak of huckster and shill in them. To them, politics was like football, and they could discuss the latest politics like a fan can talk about this season's NFL. Most of what they knew otherwise were the newsweekly contents at the newsweekly level. That was Mr. Steinberg: technically ignorant, voluble, a huckster and shill. He had no stake in the energy wars fight; he was there to talk in front of a fresh audience, and did.

Roger Duncan was on topic and talked about what Austin Energy was doing to reduce petroleum usage. AE's big plan afoot is plug-in hybrid cars, which were discussed without mentioning the rebate and federal tax credit plans for their purchasers. (Did I read right at $14K per vehicle total??? Definitely a $4K IRS tax credit is in the works.) Also neglected were discussions of worsening air pollution by electric cars - coal doesn't burn as clean as gasoline in a car engine - a largely unsettled issue of long standing from the scientific/technical side. There's also the total energy picture of a hybrid car - sure they get better mileage, but they cost a bunch more in energy to manufacture and maintain, what with the electric motors and regular battery pack replacements - more energy gets burned up in the vehicle's overall lifetime than an equivalent gas-only car, it seems. That's the key technical question with hybrids; nobody is asking it, and the concomitant follow-up - do hybrids make any real sense? doesn't ever get asked either. One important point made by Mr. Duncan was that Austin Energy's energy conservation program had saved the equivalent of a coal-fired electric plant in electric usage in the Austin area, and was therefore saving that much energy use and air pollution, every single day. But, he said, it took 20 years of work for that to happen, and nothing in the world of energy policy was going to take place rapidly. Voice of experience, there. Talking to him afterwards, Mr. Duncan acknowledged that the case for hybrid vehicles was complicated and was not yet made completely from the scientific/technical side. Well then, I said, AE is pushing hybrids because... " Because it is what we at AE can do to stop our using petroleum."

Brookings' David Sandalow spoke at length, and the more he spoke the more irritated I got. He didn't have to talk for very long for me to gauge that he was mostly a scientific illiterate, who got his knowledge of energy issues from reading other people's position papers written for politicians. He was a fan of biofuels and corn ethanol and ethanol from switchgrass, which distinctly shows scientific and engineering ignorance. Caught a fair whiff of jocksniff about him, when he talked about having lunch with Newt Gingrich and what a smart man he was and how Newt set him up with a lunch date with Howard Dean and what an experience that was. The more he talked the more his proposals had the whiff of wool-witted wishful thinking to them - "Just imagine Africa solving its energy policies by growing its own biofuels!" Ow ow ow. In the Q&A I asked him to explain how corn ethanol made sense from an engineering/scientific standpoint, if 19 MJ of heat energy are required to distill one liter of 21MJ heat energy content ethanol. (says Smil, in Biomass Energies: Resources, Links, Constraints., 1983) He didn't have an answer, and acknowledged that he should as he had done a bunch of reading on ethanol recently. Still managed to talk around the question for a good three minutes, though.

So here's what's going on in energy policy now in the USA, year 2007 AD, as revealed by this conference. The scientific/technical voices aren't getting heard. They are being drowned out by political voices. The political players are mostly all scientific and technical illiterates, and cannot therefore accurately evaluate the worth, desirability, or practicality of the proposals they debate.

I can't say as I'm surprised that that's true of someone from the LBJ school, dean or not, because that's poly-sci today, same as it was when I was in school. But it bothers me a lot that a major policy player like the Brookings has someone as scientifically illiterate as their energy expert. If legislators (and their staffers, who traditionally are the real knowledge base) wind up listening to and believing him then we aren't going to get any right energy decisions made except by accident. Scientific policy decisions won't be made for the right scientific reasons if we don't understand the science. Questions of energy policy are first and foremost questions of scientific policy, with economics playing second fiddle and social transformation issues a very distant echo.

Austin Energy is an example of energy policy being made at the local level, out of socio-ideological reasons, in this case reducing oil consumption as the foremost policy goal. An electric utility is deciding to substitute electricity from coal for oil. There isn't yet the science behind this decision to recommend it, and what there is, is most ambiguous. Additionally, Austin Energy doesn't have the talent and resources to do that science. We have major social policy decisions involving large and long-term tax and resource allocation being made at the local level for non-scientific socioideological reasons because there is no coherent policy now, and hasn't been one for more than two decades, at the federal level. Ideologically driven beliefs are no substitute for scientific knowledge. Major decisions made on that basis, at the local level, run high risks to certainty of being technically wrong and consequently wasting valuable economic resources. The best case in point (aside from biofuels, of course) is the current mania in some circles to get off the electric grid. (Why? What for? Jesus, people can't fix their cars these days, they are supposed to fix their electric generating and regulating equipment?) Valuable time, too, gets wasted going down false paths. But the absence of any clear national energy policy gives AE-sized players the stage for their shows, no matter how badly written and produced they are.

Will things get any better anytime soon? No, the damage caused by the years of incompetence and unprofessionalism of academia and politico/academic hangers like who paraded today is going to require some time to fix, some time for the boluses of their misinformation to pass through the system. There's reason to doubt the media will be of any help; energy issues are considered to be readership death - this symposium attracted no reporters save the UT paper. Until we get better discussions of our energy present, our future energy policies will most likely be a repeat of our past ones, which have been fairly dumb big project schemes started and discontinued, based on the fad du jour - the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, Corn into Ethanol - while such decisions that do get made get made by large corporations for all of us, based on their short-term bottom lines. Things are bad; they aren't hopeless. I'd say we still have time, but they do need fixing. Guest Commentator, Daniel N. White, has lived in Austin, Texas, much longer than he figured he would. He reads more than most people and a whole lot more than we are all supposed to. He recommends all read his earlier piece in BC, 1975 Redux, which is still, in his estimation, the best piece on the Iraq surge anybody printed when it started. He is still doing blue-collar work for a living - you can be honest doing it - but is fairly fed up with it right now. He invites all reader comments, and will answer all that aren't too insulting. Click here to contact Mr. White.

Your comments are always welcome.

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April 10, 2008
Issue 272

is published every Thursday

Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
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Est. April 5, 2002
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