Monday, October 15, 2007

Report from Kansas E3: Energy, the Environment, and Economics.

So last week on Thursday I attended the 2007 State of the State, Kansas Economic Policy Conference (with the above title). The conference is put on by the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas. They’ve got a website with some basic information.

The key theme of this meeting was about how to balance our staggering energy demands with the environmental hazards caused by energy generation. I had been under the impression that this was going to be more of a panel-discussion type of conference. The two big sessions were labeled “Panels” and listed moderators, but in the morning session each of the panelists gave a 20+ minute talk, and there was virtually no time for questions.

I found the conference to be very interesting, at least the portions I saw (I did not see every speaker). Several points stood out, and I’ll discuss them briefly:

1. Our energy problems are enormous, and getting much greater. All the speakers agreed upon this point. They also agreed that the dramatic increases in demand over the next 25 years will be driven by increasing energy consumption in China and India. One speaker tossed out the staggering datum that China is building 1 coal power plant a week. The (old-school) industrialized world (OECD countries) is probably not going to see dramatic increases in energy consumption. The estimated increases are amazing. Speaker Tim Carr, of the Kansas Geological Survey and the University of West Virginia, put the energy numbers into a somewhat comprehensible format. Today, we globally use the energy equivalent of 211 million barrels of oil (MMBOE) a day. By 2030 we’re globally expected to be using 311 MMBOE/day. As he points out, there probably are enough coal, petroleum, and natural gas resources available to meet this demand over the next hundred years. As he also pointed out, the problem is the effect using such resources will have on the environment.

2. Nobody in the energy industry has any idea how to develop an environmentally friendly energy source. The morning Keynote speaker, William Downey of Kansas City Power and Light, repeated over and over again that “I have been in the utility industry for 35 years, and we’ve essentially got the same options for power generation now that we had 35 years ago.” Tim Carr pointed out that wind, ethanol, geothermal, solar, and all other biofuels account for less than 1.5% of our global energy usage. Downey also pointed out that the amount of money being spent on R&D has been decreasing from both the public and private sector over the past thirty years, despite the increasing need to find solutions. In my opinion, this is strong evidence that the industry is not hiring a diverse enough workforce in the R&D field. If energy companies continue to hire geologists and engineers who have specialized in understanding how to find petroleum and coal, it should be obvious that they aren’t going to be able to come up with innovative strategies to utilize solar, tidal, or bio-energy options.

3. Individuals with positions of security generally give terrible talks. Not all the talks I saw were awful. William Downey’s talk was actually quite good, especially considering the computer went out and the tech people kept interrupting him. Other speakers were less skilled orators. I assume this is because they didn’t practice. The speakers were generally rambling, monotone, and apparently intimidated by the audience. Some of them mumbled! By contrast, almost all the truly great talks I’ve seen have been by graduate students or other young and ‘inexperienced’ speakers. I assume this is because the younger speakers have more at stake. The mind reels at the implication that the people who are most listened to are the ones who have quit caring about how to express themselves.

4. Mis-information and spurious correlations can dramatically alter how people perceive an issue. Tim Carr put up a correlation between life-expectancy and energy consumption, making vague appeals to “refrigerating medicine” as the causative agent. I don’t actually have the data to disprove this assessment, but he offered no evidence in support of it. Other speakers have suggested that HIV/AIDS, which dramatically lowers life expectancies whether or not it is treated, is single-handily driving down life expectancy in Africa. Eliminate African countries, and the energy-lifespan relationship looks a lot weaker. Yet by putting up a figure with little or no context and supporting data, Tim Carr managed to suggest that we must produce more energy to save lives. In reality, the relationship between energy usage and life-span is more complex, and even spending more time in contemplation of Carr’s figure suggests that any relationship that might exist plateaus at a level 1/10th of the U.S. per capita energy consumption. That information doesn’t support the central tenet of the speakers: That energy consumption must continue to rise.

Tim Carr also put up a list of “Humanity’s Top Ten Problems Next 50 Years” as enumerated by Richard Smalley, a 1996 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. #1 on the list is Energy. Carr said “I like to start my talk with a Nobel Laureate.” This is an appeal to authority, and while Richard Smalley was certainly passionate about cheap energy, it is hard to take seriously a list that lists “Energy, Food, and Water” as the top three concerns, while listing “Population” as #10. After all, if population problems are solved, won’t most of the food, water, and energy problems be solved? Further, Smalley himself advocated education as the means to achieve cheap energy, yet education is only #8 on the list. Again, by showing this slide, appealing to authority, and then moving on without any critical analysis of the idea, the real issue is obscured so that a particular viewpoint can be promoted.

5. The conference organizers don’t know how to make a vegetarian food option. No. Potatoes and asparagus (the sides) do not constitute a ‘substitute’ for beef. And here I thought KU would be able to provide some reasonable alternative (cheese ravioli? Anything?).

I really didn’t end up learning much about how environmental concerns could be addressed while developing economically viable energy sources. Mostly the energy people seemed to just throw up their hands and advocate “clean coal” (I’ll try to explain why this is a misnomer in some future post) or nuclear. I’m not sure nuclear isn’t a good solution, but I’m not as informed as I ought to be about the risks. The other major suggestion was to get consumers to be more energy efficient. That strategy has been so effective in some places that energy companies have raised their rates to compensate for lost revenues.

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