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Stephanie Cohen

New Atlantis blogger Stephanie Cohen is a journalist who covers energy and environmental issues for a wide range of print and online publications. She can be reached at scohen@thenewatlantis.com.


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Stephanie Cohen’s Latest New Atlantis Articles

 Energy Incrementalism” (Spring 2006)

 Energy Dreams and Energy Realities” (Spring 2004)


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Power Politics

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

T. Boone Pickens outlines his energy policy for America 

This week, billionaire oilman (and now wind energy investor) T. Boone Pickens has debuted his new energy policy to wean the U.S. off oil. Pickens says he is prepared to use his own money to advance this plan. At the center of his plan is another fossil fuel — natural gas — and renewable energy like wind power.

What’s the renewable fossil fuel equation? According to CNBC’s recounting of Pickens’s appearance on that network on Tuesday morning:

Developing wind and solar power could lower the use of natural gas in some instances, he said. Some of that natural gas could be redirected to uses normally reserved for oil, like transportation. That, in turn, could lead to a 38 percent reduction in the use of foreign energy supplies, he concluded.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Mr. Pickens plans a long media campaign “to promote his energy policy ideas — which align perfectly with his business investments. He’ll spend tens of millions of dollars on television and Web advertising and will make talk show appearances along the way”:

Mr. Pickens agreed that the shift to natural gas and renewable power will take time. He isn’t trying to address current prices at the pump; Americans will have to find ways to live with expensive gasoline, he said.

And he acknowledges that building natural gas pipelines to every service station, erecting more wind turbines, and stringing the transmission lines to service them, would cost billions of dollars.

But with the U.S. spending $700 billion a year on foreign oil, investing several billion in wind turbines and new transmission lines would be an attractive trade-off, he says.

The businessman also announced Tuesday that he was investing $10 billion on a 4,000 megawatt wind power deal in Pampa, Texas. He referenced an “unbelievable wind corridor from Sweetwater, Texas to the Canadian border” as a possible site for 150,000 megawatts. Pickens toured wind turbines in Sweetwater last week with national media outlets. An Abilene Reporter News story last week quoted Pickens as saying “we’ve already bought the turbines for the first 1,000 megawatts, and we’ll start construction in the summer of 2010.”

Pickens has also launched Clean Energy Fuels, a company that runs natural-gas filling stations for fleet vehicles, according to a MarketWatch story.

Pickens doesn’t plan to discuss energy policy in a bubble; he plans to push the presidential candidates to address the issue. According to the Dallas News, “He aims to make energy a central issue in the presidential election. He’ll challenge the candidates to go beyond pandering on gasoline prices to create real energy plans.”

Actual text of the energy policy is not yet available but the “Pickens Plan” is outlined here. This morning in the Wall Street Journal, Pickens argues that “can be accomplished within 10 years if this country takes decisive and bold steps immediately. This plan dramatically reduces our dependence on foreign oil and lowers the cost of transportation. It invests in the heartland, creating thousands of new jobs. It substantially reduces America's carbon footprint and uses existing, proven technology. It will be accomplished solely through private investment with no new consumer or corporate taxes or government regulation. It will build a bridge to the future, giving us the time to develop new technologies.”

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 7:06 pm
File As: Energy Technology, Energy Policy, Business of Energy, Alternative Energy

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Energy and auto executives meet with Obama 

The Chicago Sun-Times blog reports on the business leaders that have met with Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Businessmen from the energy and auto industry incude: Vinod Khosla (Founder and Partner of Khosla Ventures), G. Richard Wagoner, Jr. (Chairman and CEO of General Motors), Alan Mulally (CEO of Ford Motor Co.), and Jim Rogers (CEO of Duke Energy).

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 6:04 pm
File As: Business of Energy, Energy Politics

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Florida governor calls for renewable energy standard 

Florida Governor Charlie Crist — who recently announced his support for oil and natural gas drilling in the outer continental shelf off the Florida coast — has signed an energy bill aimed at boosting renewable energy sources and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. But the bill contains no timeline or mandatory milestones, so it’s unclear what impact it will actually have.

According to the federal Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy division:

House Bill 7135 requires the Florida Public Service Commission to establish a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that will specify a minimum percentage of retail electricity sales that must be supplied by renewable energy, but the bill does not set the minimum standard or a timeline. Instead, the bill requires the commission to prepare a draft rule by February 2009 and present it to the legislature for approval. The bill also requires the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to create a cap-and-trade regulatory program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from major emitters. Again, the bill sets no specific limits and requires any program to be ratified by the legislature.

The Energy Department outlines the other major provisions in the bill here.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 5:47 pm
File As: Energy Policy

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The intra-state Alaskan pipeline 

Alaska has been working with major oil companies and Washington lawmakers to build a pipeline to the lower forty-eight states for years. But it appears an intra-state pipeline capable of moving 460 million cubic feet of natural gas a day may come first. Reuters reported on Tuesday that Governor Sarah Palin, a Republican, is teaming up with Enstar to build an in-state natural gas pipeline to send untapped reserves (35 trillion cubic feet) on Alaska’s North Slope at a cost of $26 billion to $31 billion. The fuel would be pumped to Alaska residents in major population centers. The pipeline would cover about 450 miles and “run from the Cook Inlet basin in southern Alaska north as far as Fairbanks, and later extend to the Brooks Range hills to bring gas from there south to Fairbanks, Anchorage and other Alaska markets.” Construction is slated for 2011 and the pipeline could be turned on in 2013.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 4:45 pm
File As: Energy Politics

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Center for American Progress says NO to nuclear 

The left-leaning Center for American Progress has published an issue alert outlining ten reasons to oppose the construction of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. The list is a round-up of reasons typically given by those who oppose nuclear (high capital costs, where to store waste, access to foreign uranium stockpiles, safety concerns) and some rather interesting ones: U.S. firms won’t be building any new plants (“Because no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States in over 30 years, foreign companies have more experience building such plants”). Should Americans not buy Priuses either, because Toyota makes them? Another reason to oppose nuclear subsidies: they “take money away from more effective alternative energy subsidies.”

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 3:58 pm
File As: Nuclear Energy

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Solar water heaters in Jerusalem 

The Metaefficient blog has an interesting post about the dominance of solar water heaters in Israel and a great picture of Jerusalem “from above” that shows how the skyline there “often glitters with the shine of the thousands of solar heaters that adorn rooftops.” Amazing pictures — check them out.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 3:15 pm
File As: Energy Technology, Alternative Energy

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Biofuels could make up 10% of world's fuel mix 

Shell exec calls them "vital"

Rob Routs, Executive Director of Oil Sands, Oil Products & Chemicals at Royal Dutch Shell, gave a speech in Germany on July 4 predicting that biofuels could come to represent 10% of the global fuel mix. Excerpts from the speech posted on Biofuel Review:

I think biofuels could grow from a mere one percent of the world fuels mix today to as much as 7 or 10 percent over the next couple of decades.... I want us [Shell] to lead in that space; and to that end we decided in 2007 to increase our rate of investment in them — quadruple it, in fact.

To hear some tell it, all of today’s, or “first-generation,” biofuels are a disaster and should be written off. But let’s be clear: when it comes to truly sustainable, low carbon biofuels, we can’t open the taps overnight.

We still need more innovations to lower the costs and raise the yields. We still need to learn more about sustainable production. We still need to develop markets and use them to scale up capacity. We still need first-generation biofuels, both to meet mandates and to build capacity for the next generation.

Shell is in the biofuels game to win:

In addition to using conventional fossil fuels more wisely, we also are working hard to develop alternative, low-CO2 sources of energy. In the first half of this decade, we invested more than $1 billion in alternative energies including GTL, hydrogen, and biofuels.

We’ve been working for thirty years on turning natural gas to liquid — what we call GTL...In fact, we already blend it with conventional diesel fuel and sell it in more than 4,000 Shell service stations in Europe and Thailand.

We have teamed up with a number of major cities around the world to see if GTL could have a positive impact on air quality and CO2 emissions in busy urban environments. The results are promising. The most recent test data, announced in Shanghai last September, showed that Shell GTL Fuel used in buses can reduce CO2 by 4%, particles matters by 35%, and black smoke emissions by 70% compared to conventional diesel.

Hydrogen is a possibility for the future, but biofuels — though not a “silver bullet” — is the near-term answer, according to Routs:

There are obstacles to be overcome, but hydrogen could become a commercially viable transport fuel in the years to come.... Unfortunately, the widespread use of hydrogen as a power source could take a decade or more. We need to find nearer-term alternatives, which is where biofuels come in....

In 2007 we sold more than 5 billion liters — mainly to meet government mandates — and we continue to build our capability.

If not managed carefully, they can sometimes compete for land with food, consume a lot of water, or disrupt biodiversity or local cultures. It varies tremendously but some of today’s biofuels also deliver only modest CO2 benefits — compared to conventional gasoline or diesel. Looking to the future, these disadvantages could be overcome by next-generation biofuels, which are already starting to show their promise. These are biofuels that use non-food raw materials and that deliver CO2 savings of as much as 90 % compared to conventional gasoline and diesel. They are going to be vital part of the fuels mix in the future.

The full text of his speech can be read here.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 2:50 pm
File As: Biofuels

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The future of suburbia 

The Cost of Energy blog points us toward a terrific article in the LA Times titled Suburbia’s Not Dead Yet. The piece, written by Joel Kotkin, argues that contrary to conventional wisdom, high gas prices won’t send suburbanites running for the cities. Kotkin takes on the “urban boosters” (a.k.a. suburbia haters) and compares their doom-and-gloom predictions to the 1970s population hawks:

The “out of the suburbs, back to the city” narrative rests more on anecdote than demographic or economic fact. Yes, high gas prices and rising sub-prime mortgage defaults are hurting some suburban communities, particularly newly built ones on the periphery. But the suburbs remain home to a majority of Americans and a larger proportion of U.S. families — and people aren’t leaving those communities in droves to live in cities. Even with economic growth slowing, many suburbs, exurbs and smaller towns, especially those whose economies are tied to energy, are continuing to do better than most cities in terms of job creation and population growth.

The ominous predictions that the end of suburbia is at hand echo those in the 1970s, when there was also a run-up in gasoline prices. Then it was neo-Malthusians such as biologist Paul Ehrlich, the author of “The Population Bomb,” who argued that the idea of suburbia was unsustainable because it eats up so much land and energy. But suburban growth continued as people bought more fuel-efficient cars and companies moved jobs to the periphery, which cut commuting times. Contrary to pundits’ forecasts, during this decade of high energy prices, the country’s urban populations, for only the first time in recent history, actually fell, according to a census analysis by economist Jordan Rappaport at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

But today’s gas prices, at more than $4 a gallon, are the highest ever, and the prospects of them significantly dropping any time soon are slight. The conditions for an exodus from suburbia to the cities would seem ideal once again.

Nevertheless, since 2003, when gas prices began their climb, suburban population growth has continued to outstrip that of the central cities, with about 90% of all metropolitan growth occurring in suburban communities, according to the 2000 to 2006 census. And the most recent statistics from the annual American Community Survey, which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, show no sign of a significant shift of the population to urban counties, at least through 2007.

The entire article can be read here.

Kotkin is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive editor of the website http://www.newgeography.com/. Mark Schill, managing editor of the site, also has a recent post critiquing a Kansas City Star article that made the very argument Kotkin takes apart.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 1:33 pm
File As: American Energy Consumption

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Energy independence by 2023? 

The DTN Ethanol blog also points out an article in the Baltimore Sun about Republican Reps. Peter Roskam and John Shimkus and their new energy independence proposal (the Energy VISION Act) aimed at cutting American oil imports by 9.5 million barrels a day and eliminating oil imports from the Middle East.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 12:04 pm
File As: Energy Politics

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Start-up plans to use CO2 emissions to produce biofuel 

A marriage made in alternative-energy heaven?

The DTN Ethanol blog has a post about Sequesco, a start-up company that is “using synthetic biology to produce advanced biofuels.” The company’s plan is to take carbon dioxide from coal plants and biorefineries and feed it into the firm’s bioreactors, where “large colonies of bacteria would use the greenhouse gas and a nutrient broth to produce ethanol, biodiesel and other valuable byproducts.” Interesting stuff:

Sequesco joins a list of startup companies using synthetic biology to produce advanced biofuels, the Industry Standard said. “But unlike competitors SunEthanol and Amyris, which are engineering microbes to make cellulosic ethanol from various plant biomass sources, it uses waste carbon dioxide as its primary feedstock. The idea is to pump CO2 from large emitters like coal plants or biorefineries into the firm’s bioreactors, in which large colonies of bacteria would use the greenhouse gas and a nutrient broth to produce ethanol, biodiesel and other valuable byproducts. The protein-rich byproduct could be sold as animal feed or fertilizer, while the lipid-rich byproduct could be converted into bioplastics,” the Industry Standard said. “This is similar to what GreenFuel Technologies, a Cambridge, Mass.-based algal biodiesel maker, has been doing. It pipes in CO2 from power plants or industrial processes through large ponds filled with algae to make them grow and then harvests them. Sequesco’s business model can best be described as a hybrid between what GreenFuel and Amyris are doing. Sequesco’s bacteria grow 10 times faster than most algae raised for biodiesel, and because they are non-photosynthetic, they can be grown 24 hours a day, rain or shine. Area isn’t a constraint for the bugs (only volume is), so they can be cultured in conventional, low-cost bioreactors. Since space isn’t an issue, there’s great potential for scalability and the bioreactors can be installed almost anywhere.”

For the basics of synthetic biology, check out this New Atlantis article: “The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology.”

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 11:46 am
File As: Biofuels, Business of Energy, Alternative Energy

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Congress responds to gas price hikes 

CNN Money has an article up on congressional efforts to address rising gas prices and open up more areas to oil drilling:

Congress has been debating four main issues: limiting the role of speculators, increasing domestic oil drilling, taxing Big Oil to fund renewables, and capping greenhouse gas emissions.

The most likely scenario is one in which the Republicans back down, allowing increased regulation of energy speculators, and the Democrats give up some ground on domestic drilling, according to Congressional staffers and other analysts.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 10:13 am
File As: Energy Policy, Gas and Oil Prices

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Interior Department looks for offshore alt-energy projects 

The Interior Department released a proposed rule this week that would allow alternative energy projects that generate power from wind, solar, wind, and wave energy to be located in the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 9:37 am
File As: Alternative Energy

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Brit report hammers biofuels 

The Renewable Fuels Agency (a U.K. group) released the so-called Gallagher review on July 7, a report assessing the “indirect effects” of greater biofuels production. The report was requested by the British government.

Ed Gallagher, chair of the Renewable Fuels Agency, laid out the report’s conclusions:

At this stage more caution and discrimination are needed. With little sign of the developed countries losing their appetite for travel and millions of new motorists expected in rapidly developing countries such as India, China, Russia and elsewhere, better fuels are needed, along with other well documented measures. We cannot afford to abandon biofuels as part of a low carbon transport future. Equally, we cannot continue producing biofuels which are ultimately more environmentally and socially damaging than the fossil fuels they seek to replace.

Other conclusions:

  • There is a future for a sustainable biofuels industry but feedstock production must avoid agricultural land that would otherwise be used for food production. This is because the displacement of existing agricultural production, due to biofuel demand, is accelerating land-use change and, if left unchecked, will reduce biodiversity and may even cause greenhouse gas emissions rather than savings.
  • The risks of indirect effects can be significantly reduced by ensuring that the production of feedstock for biofuels takes place on idle and marginal land and by encouraging technologies that utilize appropriate wastes and residues.
  • At present, feedstock for biofuel occupies just 1% of cropland but the rising world population, changing diets, and demand for biofuels are estimated to increase demand for cropland by between 17% and 44% by 2020. However, the balance of evidence indicates there will be sufficient appropriate land available to 2020 to meet this demand.
  • Increasing demand for biofuels contributes to rising prices for some commodities, notably for oil seeds, but the scale of their effects is complex and uncertain to model.

To read the executive summary go here. To read the entire report go here.

The British government responded to the report before Parliament; the responding minister noting that “Professor Gallagher’s findings are particularly significant in the context of ongoing debates about biofuel targets across the EU.”

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 5:29 pm
File As: Biofuels

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

SAFE reports on second-generation biofuels 

A report from Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), “The Truth About Biofuels,” argues against reliance on liquid biofuels, concluding that 1) “there are drawbacks as well as advantages” to liquid fuels, 2) the limitations of corn-based ethanol have become clearer, and 3) second-generation biofuels (cellulosic ethanol) also have some of the same limitations. The report’s take on corn-based ethanol:

It is easy to understand the appeal of corn ethanol. At first glance, it appears to be everything that oil is not. It is renewable. It is domestically produced. It is clean (or cleaner, at least). But it has become increasingly clear to even casual observers that, like perpetual motion, what looks good on the surface may in fact be just a mirage.

The report summarizes all of the news and events that have led to a backlash against corn-based ethanol. On the topic of second-generation biofuels, the report — not surprisingly — finds that it, too, is seriously flawed:

Cellulosic ethanol...has distinct advantages over corn ethanol, but it is not perfect. The end product of cellulosic production is chemically identical to corn-based ethanol, meaning that it also has a lower energy concentration than traditional gasoline, and that it faces the same infrastructure challenges. In addition, some of the crops suitable for 2nd generation biofuels can become invasive species if introduced to certain regions. For example, jatropha is not a problem in its native India, but it can be an invasive weed in other areas, hindering agriculture later.

Maybe third-generation biofuels — “commercially viable liquid biofuels that combine the low cost of cellulosic feedstock with an output that can be transported and distributed using current pipelines and tanks, and burned in conventional engines” — are the answer?

Not likely, the report says. “All of these investments are designed to test fuel technologies that appear successful at the lab scale but have unanswered questions about cost and scalability for commercial use. It appears increasingly likely that some strong alternatives to cellulosic ethanol may appear on the market well before ethanol production reaches the scale of requiring substantial new infrastructure and engine modification investments.”

If biofuels and “all liquid fuels” are out, what’s in? “The electrification of the transportation system — with advanced biofuels providing critical bridging technology — may be the true path to energy security.”

SAFE’s advisory board includes lots of former senior White House staff and agency officials from the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations. Roger Ballentine (chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force and deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton), Rand Beers (senior director for combating terrorism for President George H. W. Bush), F. Henry Habicht II (deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and assistant attorney general at Department of Justice under the Reagan administration). The group says its aim is to reduce America’s dependence on oil and supports ending a federal moratorium on oil and natural gas production in the Outer Continental Shelf.

The group spent $380,000 lobbying in 2007 and so far has spent $80,000 in 2008, according to OpenSecrets.org. The website Muckety.com has a “relationship” map that shows the co-chairs of SAFE. Clicking on each name brings up a map of their professional and corporate connections.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 1:32 pm
File As: Biofuels

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The $100 fill-up – and the gag reflex 

The New York Times has a story in the Sunday edition about the dreaded $100 fill-up, calling it a “new financial milestone” for some car owners. Clearly prices at the pump are digging into family budgets and energy prices are certainly newsworthy. But this story leads with a profile of Bryan Carisone (a heating and air-conditioning contractor in Raritan, N.J.) who “absolutely loves” the GMC Denali XL vehicle that he bought in June. Still, Mr. Carisone said “it just about killed me” when his first fill-up totaled $109. Surely it shouldn’t have surprised him. Mr. Carisone bought the car in June — the same month the national average for gasoline finally hit $4 a gallon after months of upward hikes. On June 8, CNN Money reported that “The national average for regular unleaded rose 1.7 cents to $4.005, according the daily measure on the AAA’s website.” Though the Times does not tell readers which Denali package Mr. Carisone purchased, it is worth noting that the fuel economy figures given by General Motors indicate that models get between 12 and 14 miles per gallon in the city and between 18 and 20 on the highway. Mr. Carisone clearly wasn’t shopping for a fuel-efficient vehicle — nor should he have to. But he probably shouldn’t be surprised that it now costs him more than $100 to fill up and reporting his shock at this turn of events hardly seems newsworthy.

The Times story also reports on the “acute pain” folks that drive the Chevy Avalanche model and Hummers are feeling:

Members of the Chevy Avalanche Fan Club of North America prize the Avalanche, a large sport utility vehicle, for its versatility, including a rear cab wall that slides forward for a larger pickup bed or backward for more passenger room.

But the Avalanche also has a 31-gallon tank, which would cost $127 to fill at Saturday’s national average price. Even the truck’s most dedicated fans find that galling. David H. Obelcz, who founded the club in 2002 and is still a member of the board, sold his Avalanche because he could not afford gasoline for it.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 1:11 pm
File As: Gas and Oil Prices, American Energy Consumption

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