Clean Energy? Obama’s Carnegie Mellon Talk

In a speech at Carnegie Mellon University, President Obama warned of the dangers of our oil addiction and made the case for clean energy, but he did so without mentioning some of the cleanest and safest energy of all, renewable solar and wind power.  Instead of condemning offshore drilling all together, he suggested that it should continue to be part of the equation at least temporarily as we shift to safer, cleaner energy.  But shift to what?  According to Obama, “it means tapping into our natural gas reserves” .  I’m a little suspicious of the word tap.  Sounds like more drilling to me.  Isn’t natural gas a fossil fuel? Aren’t we addicted to fossil fuels?  It’s like taking methadone to kick heroin or oxycontin to treat pain, both “remedies” are highly addictive.  And what happens when the tap runs dry.  Unless we reduce our consumption of fossil fuels considerably, the nation is in for a serious case of the DTs.

The other “clean” energy the President mentioned is nuclear.  If an offshore drilling rig can blowup due to human error, what about a nuclear power plant.  Remember Chernoybl and Three-Mile Island?  Pretty messy. I have this image of Homer Simpson at the controls.  Not only is nuclear power a potentially dangerous pursuit, it’s an expensive one.  Plants cost billions to build and very few, perhaps fewer than 2% have ever been built on time and on budget.

I agreed with some of his plans, such as “putting a price on carbon pollution” and requiring cars and trucks to be more energy efficient.  He didn’t say how efficient, but I say bring the standard up to 55 mpg.  Nor did he say anything about a speed limit.  I’d say bring it down to 55 mph, and save some lives in the process.  He mentioned investing in technology to help the U.S. be a lead player in hybrid battery production, which is not a bad idea, but let’s sell some electric cars too – it’s time to get the “Government Motors” Chevy Volt on the road.

In the wake of the BP oil disaster which may have irreparably damaged the Gulf Coast economy and environment , I expected the President to make a better case for clean, safe and renewable energy.  I also expected that he would blast big oil and demand a moratorium on deep offshore drilling and somehow link clean energy to clean up.  Let’s replace “drill baby drill’ with “clean baby clean” or “clean up baby clean” or “clean baby green”…or something.

Say No to Nukes and Clean Coal

In his first State of the Union address, President Obama called for nuclear power plants and the exploration of clean coal technologies.  He even made a reference to drilling.  I thought “drill baby drill” was the republican mantra.   Back to nukes, hey – NO NUKES.  Nuclear power plants are expensive, exceedingly so and take years to build.  Can you name a plant built in the US on time and on budget?  And they are dirty and dangerous.  Remember Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.  In the same speech,  Obama warned of the threat of nuclear weapons and pledged to work with Russia to reduce stockpiles and launchers.   So why explore nuclear power?  Spent fuel from a nuclear reactor poses a danger to the environment and could be used to make a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb.  And clean coal?  An oxymoron if ever I heard one.  I’d rather try to power something with Oxyclean, or even oxycodone, stuff potent enough to power a medium-sized middle western city for two months.

Candidates’ Views on Nuclear Power

McCain and Obama support nuclear energy as part of an overall strategy to reduce US dependence on foreign oil.  McCain hopes to greatly expand the use of nuclear power, by building 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030.  By contrast, Obama is more cautious about the role of nuclear.  In a post on, Obama is reported to have said that “before an expansion of nuclear power is considered, key issues must be addressed including security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage and proliferation. ”

Neither candidate has mentioned the enormous costs involved in building a new power plant or refurbishing an old one.  Well, one did, but he’s no longer in the race, John Edwards who rejects nuclear as not being economically viable.  “We haven’t built a nuclear power plant in this country in decades.  There’s a reason for that.  The reason is that it is extremely costly.  It takes an enormous amount of time to get one planned, developed and built.”

According to an article in the NY Times, Nuclear Endorsements Differ in Detail, the cost of building just one plant is estimated at 6-8 billion.  The construction time could take 4-6 years conservatively.  Utility companies would have to receive some sweeteners (not Aspartame) from the government to take on a new nuclear project.

Is nuclear the answer?  I don’t know.  I am not as concerned with the safety issues as I am the cost factors.  We do need to build more plants, there’s no question.  The US currently has 104 nuclear plants operating in 31 states.  Every state should have at least one.  45 new ones?  No.

Currently only about 7% of the energy consumption in the US is met by renewable sources, and mostly from hydroelectric and biomass.  Therefore, we do need to invest billions in new technology like wind and solar.  Wind could produce up to 20% of electricity in the US by 2030, for example.  It’s clean.  The only problem is getting a wind turbine built and installed might take as long as it would take to build a nuclear power plant.  The US does not have an established manufacturing base to supply parts for a large scale wind project.  Current orders for turbines are delayed.  See a recent article in the Boston Globe Projects in the Wind.

What is the answer?  All of the above, but more importantly “my friends” we need to take drastic steps to lighten our own carbon footprints to become less dependent on fossil fuels.  As Americans, we are 5% of the population and consume 26% of the world’s energy.  That’s embarrassing and frankly unjust given that worldwide 2 billion live without electricity. We need a new mantra, (sorry Sarah) –  instead of “Drill Baby Drill” how about “Walk Baby Walk” or “Bike, Baby Bike” or “Bus Baby Bus” provided those buses are CNG fueled.  If you must drive, buy a hybrid, or a fuel efficient vehicle – buy a Honda Fit.  Don’t travel so much if you can avoid it.  Take day trips instead of long distance vacations, if you take any vacation at all.  Use Zipcar.  Recycle, if you don’t already.  Take short showers.  Install low flow shower heads and aerators at your home or apartment.  Mow the lawn with an electric mower, or solar mower (I like the sound of that) but I’m not sure they exist.  Turn off the lights.  Turn your computers off students – yes it matters.  Be good to the environment.  This is how we can all put Country First!