The improbable environmentalists

30 07 2008

I would like to tell you today about 2 renowned Texas oil billionaires who have recently taken public stances to move away from fossil fuels, oil in particular.

The first is T Boone Pickens Jr, a legendary oil man, who recently lauched the so-called Pickens plan, an initiative to free the US from foreign oil imports. His plan is focused on wind, solar and natural gas, the latter being scarcely carbon-free – and clearly that’s not his concern. There’s nothing revolutionary in the technologies he is advocating – but his business model and PR seem to push the envelope. An interesting fact is that he has heavily contributed to George W Bush’s campaigns, so can scarcely be accused of being a communist, like the Marietta nitwits I was mentioning in the previous post.

The second is Matthew Simmons, also a leader in the oil industry. Simmons is a pundit on Peak Oil, which he believes was reached some time in 2005. You can read more about his conversion here, and look at his very informative speeches here. I heard about Simmons in an interview in GOOD Magazine, which makes clear that he is also a confessed Republican, and one not too concerned about the urgency of global warming.

Power quote :

“If we don’t create a solution to the enormous potential gap between our inherent demand for energy, and the availability of energy we will have the nastiest and last war we’ll ever fight. I mean a literal war.”

As a potential solution, Simmons is advocating an unlikely alchemy : Oil to Seawater. He is spearheading the Ocean Energy Institute, which aims at assessing the electricity generation potential of ocean currents. A little science here from yours truly : if you can make wind turbines, you can make water turbines. There are plenty of steady currents in the ocean, whose power dwarf almost anything we can think of. Cyclical currents like those due to tides have also been recognized for a long time (tidal mills were used by the Romans), albeit never developed to a significant extent. As a French kid, I heard about tidal energy generation  because of a pilot project started in our oil-poor land  in the 60’s on the La Rance river. Given that there are only 2 other plants like this in the world, the principle can hardly be said to have gone viral, but it could be because the field of ocean power generation is still in its infancy. Interesting readers can learn about tidal power here.

The oceans, due to their inertia, are an inherently more steady source of mechanical energy than the atmosphere for us humans. So the upside is that ocean power is much more predictable than wind power. The downside, has every seaman will tell you, is that the ocean eats everything : seawater is extremely corrosive, hence sea-worthy equipment is very expensive.  There is still much that we don’t know about the feasibility and scalability of ocean energy generation for our power-hungry civilization,  and I will be extremely keen on seeing what Simmon’s institute comes up with. It is especially interesting to be looking above the low-hanging fruits and trying to tap into the ~3.7 TW of gravitational potential energy that the Moon and the Sun give to our fluid envelopes, ocean and atmosphere [source].

I think both examples are remarkable in that neither man is remotely close to a Greenie Hippie, yet has understood the economic and national security implications of the current oil crisis. As entrepreneurs, they are wasting no time in finding solutions, because their is tremendous economic incentive to do so. Since they have a few horses in the race, it would be easy to claim that they are merely advertising their latests investments, but I believe the story runs deeper.

I hope it gives food for thought to everyone, irrespective of political leanings.

El Niño

PS : Since i am not an expert on peak oil, and for the sake of offering a balanced outlook, I hereby refer readers to this excellent blog on Peak Oil.

Repower America

23 07 2008

After a long absence, I am back blogging for a minute. Essentially, I have refrained from participating in the blogosphere, in favor of the postdoctoral research I am actually employed for, writing a book on week-ends, and visiting family in Europe. I have also looked at Climate Audit a few times, only to be shocked that the herd of barking dogs has gotten way out of hand to be worthy of my time. Until the next idiocy calls for a spanking…

I was tempted to blog a few weeks ago about an utterly gruesome article that was the front page of a newspaper I would be reluctant to wipe my bottoms with, The sunday paper. The front page touted “Is Gore wrong ?”, while the story was largely about a tiny rally of anti-AGW nuts still stuck in 50’s McCarthyist rhetorics. Essentially, trying to curb greenhouse emissions was a “socialist” move, and the wackos celebrated their inalienable right to use to incandescent light bulbs by flying a hot air balloon : swift, to say the least. The offensive part wasn’t so much the tone of the article, which actually also gives space to the pro-AGW side (albeit not to its most credible defender, IMHP) ; the offensive part indeed was the editorial spin of the front page headline, insidiously suggesting that all of the climate crisis is bogus because of an insignificant event that gathered a few misguided armchair skeptics.

I clearly have a long way to go on the road to climate communication, because just re-reading this article heated my blood a tad too high, and made me wish I had a few nitwit ballooners around, just to strangle them à la Bart Simpson. That is why I stayed silent then. Yet, the Sunday Paper mishap did not go unnoticed, and a moderate commentary of it can be found here. I would certainly have been way more incisive, but preferred to calm down in the face of some obvious facts :

  1. Anger never solves anything.
  2. Too few people read the Sunday Paper for this to be of importance.

So I waited until something more positive came along, which happened just a few days ago.

On July 17, the inevitable Al Gore delivered an inspiring address at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C, hosted by the WE campaign. Gore challenged U.S. policymakers, entrepreneurs, and ordinary citizens to change their entire approach to energy use. He proposed that the U.S. produce all of its electricity using carbon-free energy sources by 2018.

To those afflicted by the Gore Derangement Syndrome : this will be extremely offensive material. To others, I think it gives an excellent example of a forward step out of the triple crisis we are currently in : economic, energetic, environmental.

Power quote :

“We are borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian gulf, to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that has to change”.

Since nothing seems to happen these days without McCain’s or Obama’s commentary, no one should be surprised that they reacted to it ; what’s more surprising is that they agreed about it. McCain apparently said, “If the vice president says it’s doable, I believe it’s doable.” [Source: Associated Press]. Obama’s praise was even higher.

As I have said before, I am not here to endorse a party, but I am pleased that both presidential candidates can hear the voice of reason. It makes me hopeful that this is not a lost cause, whichever the outcome of the November election.

It remains to be seen how many key players do get on board. I surely hope not too many of them are flying hot air balloons instead of getting busy, because that would be grounds for practicing slingshot in Marietta, GA.