energy

'Major discovery' from MIT primed to unleash solar revolution

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The problem with solar power is that the sun doesn't shine all the time. I once thought that you could store excess energy by performing electrolysis, thus producing hydrogen and oxygen, and then recombine them later to produce power at night. But electrolysis is not very efficient.

Turns out some guys a lot smarter than me at MIT came up with a better way to do this:

Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun's energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.

The key component in Nocera and Kanan's new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity -- whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source -- runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.

Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it's easy to set up, Nocera said. "That's why I know this is going to work. It's so easy to implement," he said.

Oil and the Environment

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I was reading this piece about oil drilling and it occurred to me how this issue is fast become the GOP's last gambit to turn back the forces of change, and how Democrats seem to be falling for their trick.

I've argued this issue many times, and I've always tried to make my arguments based on economics, not the environment. Sure, reducing oil consumption will help curb global warming and lessen chances for oil spills and other pollution. And opening up a wildlife refuge in Alaska to oil drilling goes against the entire purpose of having refuges. (Funny how conservatives won't believe scientists who say global warming is a fact, but they will believe scientists who say they know how much recoverable oil lies under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge without a single test well being drilled. But that's another story.)

So it makes me cringe when I hear Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats saying she is adamant against expanded offshore drilling because she wants to save the planet. It plays right into the GOP attack. For the small number of independent voters who will decide this election, the price of gas means more than possible damage to the environment.

Democrats need to get united to make their counterattack work. It's about the economics, stupid. New drilling will not drop the price of gas, near as much as a little conservation and seeking new energy sources.

In fact, this would be a good time for Dems to cut a deal. They should propose to open up new offshore drilling, but under a little stricter environmental safeguards than before. And, they should throw in a provision that oil companies must begin production on their oil leases in a certain amount of time, or they lose those leases. They already lease 68 million acres that they aren't trying to get oil from now. And it's not like they don't have the money to drill on those 68 million acres, with their record profits rolling in.

The Dems could take this issue off the table by making a bold move like this. But if they continue to make this about the environment, they may just lose this thing.

Ethanol vs. Livestock debate heats up

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Even Texas Republicans are starting to grumble:

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily waive regulations requiring the oil industry to blend ever-increasing amounts of ethanol into gasoline. A decision is expected in the next few weeks.

Mr. Perry says the billions of bushels of corn being used to produce all that mandated ethanol would be better suited as livestock feed than as fuel.

Feed prices have soared in the last two years as fuel has begun competing with food for cropland.

“When you find yourself in a hole, you have to quit digging,” Mr. Perry said in an interview. “And we are in a hole.”

Big Oil profits not being used to increase production

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A few weeks ago I wrote a column about how the push by oil companies to obtain permission to drill in ANWR and offshore was about tying up leases for the future, not to increase production.

Here is a big piece of evidence to support that view. The Big Five oil companies, who are reporting record-shattering profits, are pouring 55 percent of that money into stock buybacks and dividends, while the amount of money spent on increasing production has stayed virtually unchanged for years.

Hate to break it to the people who think we can drill our way out of our energy problems, but the oil companies have no intention to help us here. It is in their best interests to keep production limited, to sit on millions of acres of leases the already have, and trying to tie up even more. It's that little thing called unregulated capitalism at work. With all the consolidation in the oil business, there is little competition here. These oil companies can lock up the supplies and watch the price go up. Their only worry is that the price will rise too much and the government will come in and bust up their party.

So yes, they make a big deal about new offshore drilling and ANWR. And if they convince Congress to go along, they'll drill a couple of holes here and there to make it look like they are doing something. But looking at their track record with the oil leases they already have, they certainly aren't going to increase oil production enough to make the price go down. Why would they? Heck, their shareholders would probably sue if they did.

Jimmy Carter was right

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People are starting to realize that Jimmy Carter was right all along, though maybe he was ahead of his time:

He was right in seeking to raise the fleet auto mileage standard to 48 miles per gallon by 1995. (Even U.S. automakers admitted at the time that they could easily achieve 30 mpg by 1985.)

Carter was right in exhorting Americans to turn down their thermostats, even if he did look nerdy in a cardigan while urging us to do so.In his July 1979 speech, he was right when he said, "I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 —- never." That worthy goal quickly went by the board.

He was right to encourage fuel conservation by proposing a 50-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and a fee on imported oil —- in effect, a floor for fuel prices.

Invoking the pioneering spirit of the 1960s moon mission, he was right to recommend a tax on windfall oil profits to finance a crash program to develop affordable synthetic fuels.

Carter was correct, too, in setting a goal of obtaining 20 percent of our energy from solar power by the year 2000.

Where would we be today if only we had followed his programs? The problem is that Carter's programs dropped oil consumption in this country for 15 years, which resulted in lower gas prices. But once everyone forgot about those long gas lines, they started using oil like it was 1970 again. And now we are facing the very same problems 30 years later.

Solar power boom in the desert

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I wrote a column a few years ago about how the Nevada desert could produce a huge amount of solar power. Now you have solar firms and investors snatching up swaths of desert for big money. When you start seeing dollars flow like this, you know it's going to happen.

Plug-in hybrids

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Good video on plug-in hybrid vehicles:

Also check out this story.

Mercedes going gasoline-free by 2015

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While we are busy debating drilling for more oil, Mercedes is converting all of their cars to running on electricity, fuel cells and biofuels in seven years. Think about that. In less time than it will take to get one drop of oil out of ANWR, one of the biggest car companies in the world won't need oil for any of its cars.

If Mercedes can do it, why can't GM and Ford? Will American car companies be left behind yet again?

We need this kind of bold goal for our country. What if the next president were to set the goal that by 2020, all new cars sold in the U.S. would be gasoline-free? What if he mandated this, and offered American car companies incentives and research funds to reach this goal?

The Oil Game

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It's been interesting to see the feedback to my column about oil drilling. Some people seem to think my argument is based on environmental concerns. It's not. It's all about politics.

The facts are that oil companies already have access to 68 million acres that they aren't drilling on, which has more oil than ANWR or the currently off-limit coastal areas. And ANWR and offshore drilling will not do anything to relieve the high gas prices for decades to come, if ever.

The reason Republicans latch on to these red herrings is that it's the only energy policy they can present that doesn't require any cost or sacrifice. It's the classic George Bush free-lunch con game meant to fool angry voters into thinking their elected officials are doing something about $4 gas, and still allow them to drive their Hummers and collect tax cuts.

And John "Straight Talk" McCain even admitted as much yesterday:

At a town hall in Fresno, CA, McCain admitted that the offshore drilling proposal he unveiled last week would probably have mostly “psychological” benefits, NBC/NJ’s Adam Aigner-Treworgy notes. “Even though it may take some years, the fact that we are exploiting those reserves would have psychological impact that I think is beneficial."

Beneficial to his campaign maybe. Not beneficial to our continuing addiction to oil.

All of the resources and attention that are being wasted on this debate would be much better used working on a real energy policy with real impacts, not psychological ones. I do like McCain's $300 million electric car battery plan -- in theory. But with all the other pandering and flip-flops, I'm having a hard time believing he means it.

The sad part about this is that the Obama campaign may feel the need to oppose this kind of idea simply because McCain supports it.

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