The Day of Energy Policy

Posted on January 7, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Today was perhaps the biggest day ever for energy policy at Rice University. Famed Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens presented his vision for weaning the United States off of foreign oil to a packed auditorium on the Rice campus in the energy capital of the world, Houston. The thrust of the Pickens Plan features a significant investment in wind power (though curiously he hardly mentioned this at all in his talk), accompanied by a shift of natural gas away from electricity generation to use as a fuel for 18-wheelers and other large trucks (present battery technology won’t power these vehicles). True to Texan mythology, this is no small effort. Mr. Pickens has already spent $50 million to promote his plan; he intends to spend tens of millions more.

From my perspective, the visit by Mr. Pickens was not Rice’s lead energy policy headline for the day. That distinction is reserved for our university president, who sent an email to the entire Rice community announcing a Building Temperature Policy, outlining a series of tangible steps that members of our community can take to save energy, and calling for a broader culture of energy conservation on our campus. The Pickens event will garner media attention, enliven classroom discussions for the classes that attended, and perhaps even lead some students to focus their careers on energy. However, the Building Temperature Policy – as unglamorous as it sounds – is the real game changer.

Houston’s climate is quite similar to that of New Orleans or Tampa. That is, hot and humid. Air conditioning – providing relief from both the heat and humidity – was one of the technologies that enabled Houston (and the South for that matter) to grow into the major population and economic center that it is today. For years, locals used to boast that Houston was the “world’s most air conditioned city,” and anyone who has visited can attest that thermostats across this city are set to levels that are almost uncomfortably cold during our long, hot summers. It is not uncommon for women on our campus to wear sweaters indoors during the summer, and we even have instances where some employees use space heaters to counteract the aggressively cold air conditioning. We have taken a technology that has rendered our heat and humidity a mere inconvenience (rather than a threat to human life) and abused it. On our campus, air conditioning is our primary energy expenditure, and this is where we believe a lot of “low hanging fruit” can be found to cut our utility bills and reduce our carbon footprint.

In the 4+ years that I have worked as a campus sustainability professional, I have become involved in a variety of energy conservation efforts, from awareness campaigns to dorm energy competitions to design reviews to operational changes in facilities. There have been a number of successes along the way, mixed in with a healthy dose of frustrating moments (despite working with good, well-intentioned people). What I have come to conclude is that in absence of a comprehensive policy that outlines temperature settings, building hours, off-hour setbacks, and general expectations related to thermal comfort, we’d forever be acting in a piecemeal fashion, making adjustments here and there as time permitted, but never fully realizing the financial and environmental savings that would come with a comprehensive approach.

So why should it be so hard to create indoor conditions without a formal policy such that a worker doesn’t have to wear a sweater indoors when it’s 95 degrees and humid outside? In the absence of guidelines, the facilities personnel who actually set space temperatures are inclined to please their customers rather than conserve energy, and in doing so a space is often cooled to a level that satisfies the most heat-sensitive building occupant, as fewer people will complain about too much air conditioning than too little. Further, in the absence of guidelines, air conditioning schedules for buildings are gradually eroded as requests come in for off-hour (over-)cooling that are then never re-set, eventually leading to 24/7 over-cooling for an entire building. Facilities workers are busy and they want customers to be happy. If a customer demands that his office be cooled to 70 degrees instead of 76, why would the responding facility worker not make the change if no such policy existed to prevent it? And what if he took a conscientious stand and refused to make the change, but had no policy to fall back upon? That worker would likely be overruled.  And let us also not overlook that the customer, freed from the burden of paying their own energy bill in the workplace, will consume energy in ways that they wouldn’t dream of doing at home.

In his talk, Mr. Pickens made numerous references to the first 100 days of the Obama administration, and the need to enact a comprehensive national energy plan within that timespan. We’ll have our own first 100 days on campus as we begin rolling-out our building temperature policy, communicating with our campus community, and setting implementation processes and milestones. I see this as happening not a moment too soon. In this economic climate, universities need financial savings, and energy efficiency can be one of the ways to help keep universities strong. Imagine what even a 5% reduction in energy costs could do for your university? For us, that’s close to a million dollars. And rest assured that as soon as the economy recovers, the soaring energy prices that we witnessed in the first 8-9 months of 2008 will return.

This will be nothing compared to what’s further ahead. Quite chillingly, in his final remark during the question and answer session, Mr. Pickens noted in a rather off-hand way that we have perhaps 20-30 years worth of recoverable domestic natural gas reserves left, but that that’s enough of a bridge (and, in his view, the only available bridge) for us to cross as we race to develop new technologies to feed the energy demands of America. I suspect that crossing that bridge might take on the appearance of an Indiana Jones movie, as we race desperately to safety while the structure crumbles beneath our feet. Where does your campus’s power come from? We generate ours through natural gas fired cogeneration turbines, and we also purchase electricity from the grid that is generated in large part from natural gas. Clearly, we have long-term vulnerabilities and unavoidable challenges ahead. A building temperature policy is an important step, but ultimately each university will need to consider developing its own energy plan for the future. As Mr. Pickens joked, it’s better to be a fool with a plan than a genius with no plan at all.  Let’s hope that in academia, we’re geniuses with plans, because otherwise we’ll be nothing but planless fools.

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Oil on the Brain

Posted on August 19, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Summer is a time for vacations and reading lists. Certainly if you live in a hot and humid climate as I do (Houston), the thought of not escaping at least for a few days with a pile of books to a place with cool breezes would be soul-crushing. This summer, one of the stops on my itinerary was Portland, Oregon, a city that offers not only one of the best book stores in the world – Powell’s Books – but also the chance to experience lows in the 50s without having to wait until Halloween.

On the flight back to Houston, which clocks in at four hours on a good day (and this was not to be a good day), I finally admitted to myself that I have a new obsession. My reading on the flight was James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, a grim portrait of the hardships that modern civilization might face as production rates for fossil fuels enter a sharp decline “sooner than we think.” I had just finished reading his novel World Made By Hand, a fascinating piece of speculative fiction created as an outgrowth of The Long Emergency. In my carry-on bag were several purchases from Powell’s, including Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which quite literally envisions the Earth without humans; Oil, Upton Sinclair’s tale of social injustice and corruption in the early years of the oil industry in southern California that inspired the recent movie There Will Be Blood; and finally the journalistic wide-angle snapshot of the petroleum supply chain that gives title to my new obsession, Lisa Margonelli’s Oil On the Brain. Yes, I have oil on the brain, and it seems to be sticking to all of my thoughts.

As our flight approached Houston’s Intercontinental Airport, we entered into a holding pattern above the city, waiting for an opening in the heavy thunderstorms that were drenching the city so that we could make our landing. After a short while, the pilot announced that the flight was being diverted to Beaumont, Texas, as we were almost out of fuel. I spent quite a bit of time chewing on the symbolism of running out of fuel above the world’s energy capital, Houston, and needing to top-off in the city whose Spindletop oil well gave birth to the modern petroleum industry, Beaumont. The question on my mind at that moment was how much longer will we as a society be able to figuratively top-off in Beaumont every time we need more fuel?

Rice’s late Nobel Laureate, Professor Richard Smalley, wrote in an article published in 2005 that “at some point, almost certainly within this decade, we will peak in the amount of oil that is produced worldwide. Even though there will be massive amounts of oil produced for the rest of the century, the volume will never again reach the amount produced at its peak. This year, 2005, might very well end up being the historic date of that global peak.”[1] Earlier this summer, Houston energy investment banker Matthew R. Simmons, Chairman of Simmons & Company and author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, told an audience in Maine that he believes that global oil production peaked in May 2005, which coincidentally was the exact month that his book was published. Simmons captures the gravity of this message by sharing a quote from a late Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai who observed “my grandfather rode on a camel, my father rode in a car, I ride in a jet, my children will ride in cars, and my grandchildren will ride on camels.”[2]

If only this were an oil problem, I might not be quite so worried. Automobile fleets can transition to hybrids, then plug-in hybrids, and finally to all-electric sources; natural materials can be employed as substitutes in the making of certain plastics; etc. However, our prospects for natural gas, coal, and even uranium are all troubling. Consider for a moment the fact that some experts believe that Chinese production of coal will peak in the middle of the next decade, followed by a sharp decline. What happens to a world economy that has exported its manufacturing infrastructure and acumen to a country that will soon have to rely heavily on coal imports in order to power its factories (remembering that shipping the coal requires oil, which will be about a decade post-peak by that point)?

Let me state the obvious by saying that the operating system of our society is fossil fuels. We already know what happens when this operating system crashes temporarily. In the fall of 2005, when my family and I joined 2.5 million of our fellow Houstonians attempting to flee then Category-5 Hurricane Rita in the largest urban evacuation in U.S. history, we collectively sucked gas pumps dry across virtually all of southeast Texas. Many of us lacked the fuel for the grueling bumper-to-bumper 24-hour drive to Dallas (a trip that usually takes 4 hours), and had to return to Houston, hoping that the storm would veer away at the last minute (it did, much to the chagrin of our neighboring cities to the east). We felt trapped and powerless. And who can forget how quickly New York City descended into chaos in 1977 during the famed blackout? While that electricity outage was not caused by a lack of fossil fuels, it does illustrate how an interruption in the fossil fuel operating system can trigger a social collapse. Fortunately, in both instances, the fossil fuel operating system was quickly rebooted, and modern life returned to normal. In the coming years, crashes may become more frequent, and reboots more challenging.

As a campus sustainability professional, I’ve been grappling (somewhat unsuccessfully) with how to prepare my campus for this changeover in operating systems. We know the fossil fuel operating system will eventually start crashing (perhaps sooner rather than later), but we also know that the upgrade, which I’ll call the renewable energy operating system, is still in development and not even close to being ready for a complete and economical replacement of the fossil fuel operating system at this time. So we’re in limbo, and we’re at risk.

This challenge is not as easy as just switching power purchases from coal to wind sources. Here in Texas, we have the option to choose our power provider, and thus the option to choose how our power is generated. But even if my university were to purchase only wind power, the actual electrons entering our campus grid would probably be from the nearby coal-fired power plant. In fact, despite being the national leader in wind power production, most of the Texas power mix is still generated from a blend of natural gas and coal-fired sources, along with some nuclear, and a 2-3% contribution from wind. As that fossil fuel operating system becomes unstable, the state’s entire power grid will be vulnerable. And I say the state’s grid because Texas for the most part is an island when it comes to the national power grid. What’s generated in Texas stays in Texas.

Thinking beyond the campus, I believe that broadly speaking we should be minimizing our exposure to the fossil fuel operating system, diversifying our energy inputs so that the entire system does not crash when one source declines, developing our renewable energy operating system as quickly as possible, preparing for a rapid switch-over once the new operating system is ready to be launched, and where applicable designing for cross-compatibility of operating systems as a transitional strategy. If the decline of fossil fuels is gentle enough, and the development of renewable energy rapid enough, the modern world might not even take notice. However, if the converse is true, and if we have not appropriately re-organized our society and re-adjusted our lifestyles, we could be facing the end of modern life as we know it.

As our plane sat on the tarmac in Beaumont during our refueling stop, a violent storm cell moved across the airport, rocking our plane back and forth with high winds. As soon as the storm passed, the pilot was cleared for take-off, and subsequently flew right into the storm, resulting in the most harrowing ten minutes of in-flight turbulence that I have ever experienced before we finally reached the clearing skies above Houston. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the flight itself was a metaphor for the bumpy ride that we’re to encounter as we transition from our fossil fuel operating system to one based on renewable energy sources. Will we make it?

As if that flight didn’t provide enough symbolic fodder for my wandering mind, as we drove away from the airport we encountered a surprising message on an electronic highway message board on U.S. 59: “Tropical storm in Gulf: Fill-up gas tanks”. Oil on the brain indeed.

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