Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 11, 2010

WHEN THE GOP TRIES TO GET SERIOUS.... Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today on energy policy, and I really like the headline: "An Energy Strategy for Grown-Ups." What's not to like? So much of our political discourse seems child-like, so if good ol' Lamar Alexander wants to bring some maturity to the debate, I'm delighted.

To that end, the op-ed includes "10 steps for thoughtful grown-ups" to embrace "if we want both clean energy and a high standard of living." Several of the points are shallow but unobjectionable ("Figure out what went wrong and make it unlikely to happen again"), and some are predictable for a GOP lawmaker ("If we need more green electricity, build nuclear plants"). Alexander manages to write 700 words about energy policy without mentioning climate change or global warming at all, but since Republicans have decided to reject science altogether, this shouldn't be too surprising.

Alexander runs into trouble, though, when he contradicts himself and fails to think things through. On his list, #7 downplays the importance of wind power as a way to reduce oil dependence because wind generates "electricity -- not transportation fuel." But in the same op-ed, Alexander calls for electrifying half the nation's cars and trucks. Jon Chait tries to help him understand the problem.

You see, Senator, if half our cars are electric, then electricity would be transportation fuel. Still with me? No? Okay, I'll break it down. The wind would turn the windmills round and round. This would generate electricity, which would be sent to people's houses through wires. The electricity could then be used to run electric cars.

This is not the only problem with Alexander's piece. He outlines goals, like increasing conservation and electrifying half the automobile fleet -- but he has absolutely nothing about how to obtain these goals. His electric car plan is literally what you read above: "Electrify half our cars and trucks." Who would do this? How? He does not say. Cars and trucks run on gasoline because gasoline is the cheapest fuel available. If you wanted half the cars to run on electric power, you'd have to change this so that gasoline was no longer the cheapest fuel available. It could be a tax on carbon emissions, enormous subsidies for electric batteries, regulatory fiat, something. Likewise, if you want people to conserve energy, you need to increase the cost of using energy.

I'm not sure how you have a debate with people like this.

I wonder the same thing, every day, about every issue.

Indeed, Alexander's op-ed went on to say that officials should "find a way for utilities to make money from the CO2 produced by their coal plants."

What a great idea! Kevin Drum explained, "There's just gotta be something we can do with all that CO2! I dunno. Freeze it and sell it to Spinal Tap for their live shows? Mount a campaign to increase soda sales a hundred million percent? Build a time machine and then hire some alchemists to figure out how to turn it into liquid gold? Honest to God, where does this stuff come from?

Remember, Lamar Alexander is not only supposed to be one of the more responsible members of the Senate Republican caucus, but the piece was labeled, "An Energy Strategy for Grown-Ups."

Grown-ups who don't really understand energy policy and brush over inconvenient details, perhaps?

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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Comments

"find a way for utilities to make money from the CO2 produced by their coal plants."

That's a great solution to lots of pollution problems! What to do with spent nuclear fuel rods? "find a way for utilities to make money from the radioactive nuclear waste produced by their nuclear plants." I would also have accepted "I would sit the CO2 and the atmosphere down and tell them to stop the bullshit".

Posted by: Buckethead on June 11, 2010 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

"Electrify half our cars and trucks." Who would do this? How?

This is easy. You put the key in the ignition and attach a kite to the other end. Then wait for a thunderstorm...

Posted by: howie on June 11, 2010 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

"Electrify half our cars and trucks." Who would do this? How?

Buy them from China, what else?

Posted by: Gummitch on June 11, 2010 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

"find a way for utilities to make money from the radioactive nuclear waste produced by their nuclear plants."

Sell it to terrorists, maybe?

Posted by: howie on June 11, 2010 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

You know, if you took the CO2 and split it up into carbon and O2, you could burn the carbon again and make clean energy! How about that?

Posted by: Bloix on June 11, 2010 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Let's see. We are involved in a very serious oil spill that has not yet been solved by the best minds in a well established private, and woefully under-regulated industry, yet Lamar wants unnamed "officials" to find ways to make money from carbon dioxide. He didn't even champion the free market.

They are so incredibly ideological and shallow.

Posted by: Mudge on June 11, 2010 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

Seriously though, weren't we all laughing by the time we'd read "Lamar Alexander", "Wall St. Journal op-ed" and "Grown-ups"? The only surprise here is that it's even stupider than I would have guessed, which was pretty stupid.

BTW, I thought we'd figured out a way for businesses to make money from CO2, or more properly, from cutting CO2, which is what cap-and-trade was all about before it was deemed to be a deadly communist conspiracy that would pull the lollipops out of the mouths of sick babies, or whatever. In other words, the GOP won't let us be nice and use market-based solutions to problems, Lamar. What's up with that?

By the way, what are we gonna do with all those used batteries from the electrified vehicle fleet, assuming we could produce them in the first place? Lamar? Bueller?

Posted by: biggerbox on June 11, 2010 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, you continue to write "childlike" when you mean "childish".

Merriam-Webster online defines them as:

Childlike:
resembling, suggesting, or appropriate to a child or childhood; especially : marked by innocence, trust, and ingenuousness

Childish:
1: of, relating to, or befitting a child or childhood
2
a: marked by or suggestive of immaturity and lack of poise
b: lacking complexity : simple
c: deteriorated with age especially in mind : senile

"Childish" describes the FIP much better than "childlike".

Posted by: Cap'n Chucky on June 11, 2010 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Lamar Alexander:
Thermodynamics is a bitch, and it needs to be f*cked real hard.

Posted by: eserwe on June 11, 2010 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

This is easy. You put the key in the ignition and attach a kite to the other end. Then wait for a thunderstorm...

Brilliant. You win teh internets today.

More seriously, is there ANY republican who understands policy? a single one? Is there a one who is capable of using logic to think things through? on anything????

Of course the answer is no. It's just astounding when you think about it.

Posted by: fourlegsgood on June 11, 2010 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

Hey wait, I know how to make money from the CO2 - we separate out the carbon, crush it into diamonds and make a fortune!!!

Posted by: fourlegsgood on June 11, 2010 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK
This is easy. You put the key in the ignition and attach a kite to the other end. Then wait for a thunderstorm...

But that only works if you know in advance where a thunderstorm is going to strike! Then you have to make sure the car gets to 88 mph right at the moment of...

anyway. Lamar's piece reminds me of the Republicans' plan for the economy. Y'know, this one,

Posted by: Mithrandir on June 11, 2010 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

Force feed the CO2 to plants. Make them clean their plate. Then eat the plants. Also, we could all try breathing less.

Posted by: flubber on June 11, 2010 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

[Content deleted]

Posted by: delNorte on June 11, 2010 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

brilliant guy that alexander. he's leading by example. he conserves energy by not expending it on useless things, like specifics of his plan. if we all did this, we'd cut our oil imports by 75 percent (i saved all kinds of energy by making that last part up).

Posted by: mudwall jackson on June 11, 2010 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK

Lamar seems to take his semantics from Orwell... 'grown-ups' ... if it was a policy for grown-ups he and tbe WSJ would not have to call it that.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on June 11, 2010 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

Careful there delNorte - your hood and robes are showing.

Posted by: fourlegsgood on June 11, 2010 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

- Indeed, Alexander's op-ed went on to say that officials should "find a way for utilities to make money from the CO2 produced by their coal plants." -

Brilliant!

Now if I could only find a way to make money from the feces I produce...

Posted by: Craig on June 11, 2010 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

I think it's safe to say that anything that has "for Grown-Ups" in its title, probably isn't...

Posted by: scathew on June 11, 2010 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

I don't want anyone to think that I believe that Lamar! is a grownup, but there is a way for electic power utilities to make money off of the C02 they produce. I believe it is only profitable for a carbon tax (or carbon permit price) on the order of $20/ton, but it sure beats the Spinal tap soft drink approach.*

The idea is to bubble the exhaust up tubes filled with water and the vilest greasiest slimiest pond scum there is (no I mean real pond scum not Tom DeLay). Said pond scum stores energy as oil which can be used as bio deisel (for example to make electricity). Such a plant is under construction in Arizona. If you too want to profit from C02, you can try to invest in GreenFuel Technologies Inc http://greenfueltechnologies.blogspot.com/

except they seem to have ceased operations last September
http://www.inveslogic.com/sectors/directory/energy-stock-blog/1258640

But I mean C02 is plant food, and feeding it to plants could conceivably be profitable even without cap and trade. Of course the best way to make feeding C02 to pond scum profitable is to institute a carbon tax and the second best way is cap and trade.

*This wouldn't work as the dry ice sublimates and heats the climate even though it is cold. I think it is perfectly clear that someone named "Drum" should keep as far away from Spinal Tap as possible.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on June 11, 2010 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

Some oil companies are looking for major CO2 sources, to support subsurface CO2 injection programs, to enhance oil production.

Posted by: JoAnn C. on June 11, 2010 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

Dang! I'm late to the show, so all the good stuff is taken.

Wait a minute! Nobody has mentioned Cow Farts!

Posted by: DAY on June 11, 2010 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

I have one quibble with Chait's essay: "if you want people to conserve energy, you need to increase the cost of using energy."

No, what we need to do is to increase the *price* of using energy. The problem with carbon-based energy is that the price of carbon is less than the cost of carbon. People (and animals, I'd add) other than the consumer suffer because of the consumption of it, and are not compensated in any way for this suffering. Economists call this effect an "externality".

A appropriately-sized carbon tax (or an appropriate cap on carbon use in conjunction with tradeable permits) would bring the price of carbon in line with its cost, so that people have an appropriate level of disincentive to use it.

Posted by: Brock on June 11, 2010 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

Robert Waldmann on June 11, 2010 at 4:44 PM

I think that will probably happen eventually, but not anytime soon. Upscaling from labs to commercial size is too expensive right now.

The Great Plains Synfuels Plant in N. Dakota sells its CO2 to Canadian oil companies to drive enhanced recovery from oil fields, and some powerplants in the US do the same to some US oil fields (or so I read -- I do not have links.)

Making C and O2 via electrolysis is one way to store energy from solar and wind. It just is not, right now, a very good way. Slightly more promising are catalysts that use sunlight directly to separate C from O2 (they call this "artificial photosynthesis".)

Alexander's remark is neither stupid, childish, nor ignorant, and scientists are working on just what he proposed. It's not intrinsically unworkable, but economics and economies of scale are not favorable to widespread deployment of the technologies that have been found to date.

Posted by: MatthewRMarler on June 11, 2010 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

Some one really could remind the Republidopes that those light rail trains they have been so busy opposing run on electricity, right off the wire or third rail pickup. Simple physics also shows that a rail-electric hybrid would be nearly ten times more efficient than a bus of equivalent size, simply because rail vehicles with steel wheels have very low rolling resistance.

Posted by: bbb3b on June 11, 2010 at 6:24 PM | PERMALINK

"Now if I could only find a way to make money from the feces I produce...

Posted by: Craig on June 11, 2010 at 4:12 PM"


Somehow I think you'd make more money from the feces Congress spews.....when you find a way, that is.

Posted by: Schtick on June 11, 2010 at 7:05 PM | PERMALINK

("Figure out what went wrong and make it unlikely to happen again"),


What went wrong was a BP man ignoring rising pressure in the stand pipe as hydrates pushed their way up the pipe to the rig, when it should not have been rising.
How you stop that from happening again is to slap the guy in jail for negligent homocide and a few of his supervisors as well. Then put a few of those supervisors supervisors in jail for manslaughter for not requiring that safety rules be followed and not checking to make sure that the were being followed.

Posted by: Marnie on June 11, 2010 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

The way you use up the CO2 is to plant a couple billion trees and let them make wood out of it. In 50 or a hundred years they should be big enough to make a tiny dent in all the CO2 we have released from burining fossile fules, which includes burning trees.

Posted by: Marnie on June 11, 2010 at 7:39 PM | PERMALINK

Find a way for utilities to make money from the CO2 produced by their coal plants.


Answer: Liquefy it using equipment run by solar or wind power; use it to fill fire extinguishers; and create a national strategic CO2 fire extinguisher stockpile.

Why? Because at the rate we're going, the polar ice caps will melt and there's no telling when the Blob will thaw and start taking over the world. Hasn't anyone seen the movie?!? We're talking Nayshunal Sekuretty here!

Posted by: Bob on June 12, 2010 at 8:02 AM | PERMALINK

Marler, the direct photolysis of CO2 requires light in the far ultraviolet and produces ozone as a side product and is therefore essentially inconceivable as a one step process. Catalysts can accelerate a reaction by lowering the activation barrier, but they can not change the enthalpy of a reaction.

Artificial photosynthesis means replicating natural photosynthesis by also breaking the process down into two different steps, a light-dependent and a light-independent one. The fixation of CO2 molecules is the light-independent one and would need to be driven by the energy gained in the light-dependent part.

May I suggest that once we have mastered the light-dependent part, and thereby can produce hydrogen gas, it will make way more sense to directly burn that hydrogen gas for energy production rather than using it to reduce CO2? The only real advantage hydrocarbons have is the energy density they can pack.

So, No, Alexanders remark does not make much sense. Especially because there is little indication that it was based on anything other than the usual conservative spin that the 'market will fix it'.

Posted by: eserwe on June 12, 2010 at 8:54 AM | PERMALINK
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