Desert Year: Meeting Energy Needs is All About Perspective

It had been in my mind for some time.  Picacho Peak is a fascinating and major focal point of the Arizona landscape, located perhaps 40 miles north of Tucson.  I’ve wanted to explore both the peak and its surrounding area almost since my first return to Tucson last May.

Earlier this year Arizona celebrated the 150th anniversary of the only Civil War skirmish that occurred in Arizona — right there in Picacho Pass. The Union forces lost that particular encounter because of the disobedience of an overeager young lieutenant. They also suffered three fatalities in that fight.

The little bit of publicity I saw about this anniversary only heightened my interest in climbing the peak.  So I set out one fine Friday with a friend to get it done.

Picacho Peak at a Distance

Our very first picture was taken at about 7:30 am in the morning as we approached Picacho Peak from the south on Interstate 10.  At that angle and distance one might begin to wonder, how the heck do we even begin to think that we can actually make the ascent? And if we look at the seemingly insatiable demands for energy, how might we do anything but dig for more coal or drill for more oil? Continue reading…

Desert Year: Insights on Economy, Energy, and Climate

John ‘Skip” Laitner is an economist, enjoying a desert year while on research sabbatical  from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Skip is uncovering some surprising insights from his time in the desert that inform the way one looks at the economy and social systems. In a series of posts entitled Desert Year, Skip lends us his insights, as well as his 40 years of experience as an energy and natural resource economist, to probe the economic, climate, and energy challenges that confront us.

A Most Unnatural Cactus! 

Unlike most economic statistics, this really caught my eye.  A very tall and almost too perfect-looking giant saguaro cactus, perched very high upon the hill just outside Tucson. The desert sentinel.  I wondered aloud whether it was real or perhaps artificial.  My friend leaned over as we drove past and assured me that it might be unusually large but it looked quite real.

Still I wondered.

It took me almost six weeks later, this past weekend in fact, to actually find out.  I was out for a late afternoon jaunt and I first started to scoot along on the road right past the cactus.  But as I again looked up again I suddenly thought, why not turn the outing into a more of an adventure? So I decided to get up close and personal.

As I then detoured and surged the 200 meters up the hill, some of the details begin to unfold.  About halfway up, yes, it began to look like the real thing.  From about 30 meters away I spotted a couple of holes that might have been home to Gila Woodpeckers or Gilded Flickers.  And I thought, why yes, it might actually turn out to be very real indeed. 

But it wasn’t until I was perhaps 10 to 15 meters away that I saw the bolts that held it to its concrete footing, and as I pulled right up to it I spotted the several heavy wires that looked as though they might siphon off a very large current. I’m guessing it was nothing more than a very elegant lighting rod.

I am an economist, enjoying a desert year – very much in the tradition of naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch’s book, The Desert Year.  He wrote it in the year just before he joined the University of Arizona faculty in 1952.  I first read it in the early 1980s.  And as I am slowly making the transition into a year-long research sabbatical with colleagues at the University, the “Desert Year” again informs my thinking.  Continue reading…

Did Environmentalists Kill Climate Legislation?

This post first appeared on Triple Crisis.

Climate legislation, even in its most modest and repeatedly compromised variety, failed last year. And there won’t be a second chance with anything like the current Congress. What caused this momentous failure?

Broadly speaking, there are two rival stories. It could be due to the strength of opposing or inertial forces: well-funded lobbying by fossil fuel industries, biased coverage by increasingly right-wing media, the growth of the “Tea Party” subculture and its rejection of science, dysfunctional institutions such as the U.S. Senate with its filibuster rules, and the low priority given to climate legislation by the Obama administration.

Or it could be because environmentalists screwed up and shot themselves in the foot. Continue reading…

The American Clean Energy Party

Originally posted on Grist

Last year was a bad year for the future of humans and other creatures of the earth. The US failed to act on climate, and the victory of dozens of Tea Party Republicans in November eliminated any prospect for serious action for at least the next three years.

This is tragic. Barring future technological or political miracles, we have now blown by the chance we had to stabilize the carbon blanket surrounding the planet at 450 ppm of C02. Yet it is not “too late” for action.  Ambitious politics this decade, culminating in carbon legislation in 2013 or 15 or 17, can still stabilize CO2 at 500 ppm. 

Make no mistake: 500 ppm is worth fighting for, each and every day of our lives. Every tenth of a degree matters, and a planet with a carbon blanket that stabilizes at 500 ppm will preserve a dramatically more livable world than will a blanket of 650, or 850 or 1000 ppm. Above all, 500 ppm will give our kids time and a fighting chance to figure out how to roll back concentrations to 450 ppm, and their kids back to 350.

So what’s the plan? How can we build a powerful clean energy majority in Washington, a stronger majority than the one that didn’t get the job done in 2010?

Read the rest at Grist

To Improve Productivity, Improve Energy Policy

The year 2010 closed on a somber note that reminds us how important it is to turn the nation’s energy policy around in 2011.

It appears that U.S. energy intensity increased in 2010 for the first time since 1991. According to the latest data, the economy will have grown about 2.7% last year, but energy use will have increased by about 3.0%. The reason appears to be a hugely lagging investment in 2009 and 2010 (running at levels last seen in about 1998 and 1999), and a 19 percent increase in cooling degree days last year which forced the nation’s utilities to run flat out on some very inefficient generating units. Of course, these are preliminary estimates but the general pattern is likely to hold. And that does not bode well for the U.S. economy.

At the same time, the evidence continues to emerge that we will need to at least double our historic rate of energy efficiency improvement over the next several decades if we are to ensure a more robust and productive economy. This becomes all the more apparent as we note, based on research by Ayres and Warr, that our overall level of energy efficiency hovers at a rather anemic 13%.  The obvious implication? We waste 87% of all the energy that is used to support economic activity within the United States, and that level of waste constrains our overall productivity.

The good news is that there are huge cost-effective opportunities to increase our efficiency and to restore a greater level of robustness to the economy. More critically, the evidence also suggests this can be done despite a likely rebound effect. I might note in this last regard that, in all of our nation’s history, we have never really tried to simultaneously increase our productive capacity in ways that also allow us to reduce our total energy use. It is a daunting task to be sure, but we have the capacity to get it done – if we choose to develop those opportunities.

Climate Defeat Comes from DC, Not Copenhagen or Cancun

Originally published by Grist

What should we learn from the dual disappointment of Copenhagen and Cancun? The climate policy war isn’t over, but those who are fighting to cut global emissions haven’t won the last few rounds. The decisive defeat in this latest battle, however, did not occur at an international conference. Rather, it took place in Washington, D.C.

Although the Kyoto Protocol tried to prove otherwise, there isn’t any hope of a meaningful climate agreement without the participation of the United States. With one-fifth of the planet’s emissions and a big share of the global ability to pay for mitigation and adaptation, the world’s surviving superpower has to be on board if negotiations are going to go anywhere. (In an ideal, or even sensible, world, the United States would take the lead on climate protection.)

The enormous advance build-up of expectations for Copenhagen reflected the fact that it would be the first world climate summit after George W. Bush left the White House. It was true that a post-Bush administration was necessary for climate progress; unfortunately, it was not sufficient. In the two years when President Obama and the Democrats were strongest, they were unable to pass even a weak, compromised climate bill. Now the momentum in Washington is shifting back toward science-deniers, who plan to hold more hearings on the possibility that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the global scientific consensus are a gigantic fraud.

Read the rest at Grist