Tuesday, February 13, 2007

2008 Presidential Candidates: Energy Issues

Ideas come from both sides of the aisle, some good and some bad. In this day of sound bites, the real impact of a politician’s idea requires a little research or assumptions. I don’t like to assume. It is early in the race, very early, so this is at best a preliminary review of what some of the candidates or potential candidates are saying about alternate energy policies.

Senator John Kerry made this remark following the 2007 State of the Union address:

“Once again the President only paid lip service to a meaningful energy agenda that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil. His record speaks for itself – we’re more dependent on foreign oil than ever before. Tonight the President failed to embrace bold policies to break our oil dependence. The President says the nation should reduce U.S. gas usage by 20 percent over the next 10 years, but a goal without a roadmap for getting there is useless. The President should have included more funding for hybrids and battery technology.”

This was taken from Senator Barack Obama’s campaign website:

Senator Obama introduced legislation with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) to require 2 billion gallons of alternative diesels, such as bio-diesel, to be produced domestically by 2015. Obama also sponsored legislation requiring oil companies, that made at least $1 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2006 to invest at least 1 percent of the their total reported first quarter 2006 profits into installing E85 pumps.

Senator Obama worked with Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) to introduce the American Fuels Act that would increase the domestic production, distribution, and use of biofuels, including expanded manufacture of flexible fuel vehicles, tax credits for biofuels, and a nationwide distribution infrastructure.

This was taken from Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign website:

Ending our country's dependence on foreign oil will take real leadership. Hillary proposed a simple idea to help end the cycle of dependence: put some of the oil industry's windfall profits into a fund that would help develop practical new sources of renewable energy.

Senator Kerry mentions that without a roadmap the 20 in 10 is useless. Well it seems with a roadmap the “Energy Act of 1992” was useless. That act called for gasoline use in the US to be reduced by 10 percent by year 2000 and 30 percent by 2010. So what happened? The American consumer must have had the map upside down.

The FreedomCar initiative set less stringent goals. It basically provided federal funds to develop hydrogen power vehicle technologies. One of the problems with hydrogen is that it is hard to store enough hydrogen to get a comparable vehicle range. A company called Quantum Industries took a matching funds grant from the US and developed a composite material hydrogen fuel tank that significantly increases the range of hydrogen powered vehicles. Ford Motor Company built a prototype hydrogen fuel cell Explorer that uses a 700 bar hydrogen tank storing 10 kilograms of hydrogen and has a range of 350 miles. That would be a SUV getting the equivalent of 35 MPG burning a green alternate fuel. That fuel tank pressure by the way was the target pressure of the Quantum Industries research.

Senator Obama’s thoughts summarized are; tax the oil companies 1 percent to build a e85 infrastructure and use more clean coal.

As E85 availability and E85 rated vehicles on the road increases, the oil companies are going to put in E85 pumps. This is one of those basic supply and demand things. There are also alternate energy tax incentives in place that the big oil companies are already using. One flaw in the recommended bio-diesel mandate would be agricultural commodities costs. Enabling the already growing grass roots bio-fuel movement instead of mandating progress is normally much more effective. Alternate energy tax incentives are an example of enabling.

The use of clean coal also sounds great. A federally funded pilot project called “FutureGen” is developing clean coal use, increasing the efficiency of the coal fired powered plant by producing hydrogen as a by-product and working on methods of carbon sequestering. Coal is still a fossil fuel. Using coal as a step to energy independence is fine, but other methods not using fossil fuel would be better.

Senator Clinton’s statement was the vaguest of the three, but potentially the most profound. She chose a poor wording using the word “take” in the real world (not used on her website) referring to the windfall profits of the oil companies. If she had used a phrase like, “Not taxing up to 15% of windfall profits, provided those profits are directed towards alternate fuel research and infrastructure development” She would have had a major win on her hands.

Her not specifically directing the oil company monies toward any one alternate energy technology was a stroke of brilliance. Alternate energy technologies are emerging and allowing flexibility in investments increases the probability of success.

Many feel that little progress towards energy independence is being made. Slow and steady progress is being made. Slow and steady wins the race some times.

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