Monday, September 17, 2012

Build Baby, Build! Rewewable energy brings cheaper electricity & more jobs

2050 Power Generation Scenarios

 The utilities don't want it to happen.

They make their money when they build big, centralized power plants powered by coal, natural gas, or uranium. They take a mark up on the cost of the plant as profit. That's what most state regulations mandate: states allow utilities to mark up the cost of the plant by a fixed percentage to insure that utilities do not gouge customers. But the rule that protects customers also hurts them: utilities are guaranteed that fixed percentage on the cost of the plant as profit. How many other businesses can guarantee shareholders a profit? And the more expensive the plant, the bigger the profit.

But the state giveth, and the state can taketh away.

Distributed renewables are a lot smarter way to provide power. That means small, local, combined heat and power generators fueled by natural gas set up alongside rooftop photovoltaics, small windmills scattered about, and biomass gas generation facilities that turn food and animal (including human?) waste into natural gas and compost. Such infrastructure requires lots of components that we could manufacture locally and employ local people to install and maintain. Distributed renewables utilize existing technology and cost less to install and maintain, and once installed require no fuel source (except for biomass, which consumes waste).

Meeting demand is no problem. Distributed renewables combine different power sources that generate best at different times, use gas generators for peak loads,implement energy storage via pumped water (been around for over a hundred years), pressurized underground air, or batteries. Distributed renewables meet demand even more easily when combined with improved consumption efficiency that easily cuts household and industrial electricity use by 50%, and in many cases up to 80 % . Improving efficiency more than pays for itself and employes lots of people. (see negawatts at

Distributed renewables are more reliable, too. When you have lots of little power sources, if one fails, the impact is small. When a large centralized plant is shut down, the impact is large and for longer duration -- nuclear power plants are often shut down for months or years when faults are discovered.

But utilities hate this idea. If we distribute power generation, utilities lose their cut. They lose control of a monopoly with a guaranteed profit. Hence, they prefer to rip us off and poison us.

Ponder it.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Michigan Hydro-Fracturing: Gassed Politicians Sell Out Residents

One of the three State Excelsior wells
on Sunset Trail in Mackinaw State Forest, Kalkaska County, MI
Photo by LuAnne Kozma, Ban Michigan Fracking

"Michigan is perfectly safe and we have safeguards in place," Horn said. "This does not mean won't look for improvements in public safety." -- Rep. Ken Horn, R-Saginaw

"'Because there is more money to be made, especially with high oil prices now, legislators will want to move forward' and lease more land to operators, mostly in the northern half of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan." -- Steve Chester, the former director of the state Department of Environmental Quality and now an attorney representing gas companies.

"...chemicals found in the frack water include benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene."

Above are some lines from "Fracking in Michigan appears on the upswing," by Jay Greene in Crain's Detroit Business.

Everything's gonna be fine...

OK, I should qualify that. Everything's gonna be fine if you're a rig operator, or a Michigan state legislator, who does not draw drinking water from an aquifer punctured by one of these wells. Likely then, you'll be fine, especially the state legislator who will tip-toe through the revolving door at the end of his term, and into the glorious corporate realm where money grows on trees.

Those gas companies intend to shaft the rest of us, though.

While it is true that gas companies drilled for gas in Michigan over the last 50 or 60 years, as the article states, these were shallow wells, under 2500 feet, that required only 50,000 gallons of water to fracture. The new wells will use deep hydraulic fracturing, and require 3 million to 5 million gallons of water. Actually, what goes in these wells they do not call water. They refer to it as slickwater.

Slickwater is water mixed with very, very toxic chemicals; the sort of chemicals that, when you buy them in the hardware store for cleaning paintbrushes, or prepping materials for painting, the manufacturer puts that Jolly Roger skull and crossbones on the side of the can.

photo: Wikipedia

Smelling this stuff causes cancer. Drink it? Are you nuts? Well, gas drillers say no worries, you can drink water contaminated with benzene, it won't hurt you. That's why our leaders in Congress omitted fracking fluids from the Clean Water Act back in 2005. Because these chemicals are safe to drink. Go ahead, drink them Congress. (Just kidding Congress, don't drink them -- they would kill you. But it's fine if your constituents drink them, right? As long as the campaign contributions from gas company lobbyists flow like... like slickwater.) And if you thought the organic compound cocktail was bad enough, wait there's more. Drillers also pump radioactive isotopes like Cobalt-60, with a half-life of 5.27 years, into their wells "to determine the injection profile and location of fractures created by hydraulic fracturing."

But I'm blowing the whole toxic groundwater thing way out of proportion. These guys, these politicians and well-drillers know what they're doing. They line these wells with steel casings held in place by concrete -- special concrete -- triple-walled down to a point below the punctured aquifer. All that steel and concrete, you see, prevents the toxic slickwater from seeping into the aquifer where our drinking water resides. But there are seams in the steel -- they insert it in sections, and join the sections. Seams in pipes fail. Especially when jammed into rock and pumped full of nasty chemicals at high pressure. Thousands of feet of layered bedrock, under the pressure of its own weight, surely impose uneven forces on well-casing seams. Surely many of the hundreds of thousands of expected wells will experience failures of these seams, and many of these will propagate contamination upward toward aquifers. And don't forget the concrete used to hold the casings in place near the surface, like the stuff made by Halliburton that famously plugged the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. That's the one were the concrete from Halliburton failed, the well blew, eleven men were killed, and 5 million barrels of oil were spilled into the Gulf, trashing shrimp and tuna fishereries, killing untold numbers of porpoise, sea turtles, and birds. More to the point, a well-head at a fracking site in Pennsylvania failed -- a blow out -- and streamed 10,000 gallons of chemical laden water across hillsides and into streams.

These guys know what they are doing, you see. There won't be any mistakes in Michigan. That concrete from Halliburton will not fail. As Rep. Horn said, "Michigan is perfectly safe and we have safeguards in place..."

And yet, tales of mistakes made abound. Really. Have a look at ProPublica's ongoing series on hydraulic fracturing: "Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat." Or, you can Google "hydraulic fracturing lawsuits" and watch the cases scroll by. All over the country, fracking destroyed groundwater and people are pissed. Gas companies might pay some damages, but they won't pick up the entire tab. It will be residents forced to add elaborate filtering mechanisms to their municipal and residential wells. And that's to deal with the drinking water contamination. When drilling rig well-heads and containment ponds fail and contaminate streams, creeks and rivers with millions of gallons of "slickwater" drillers will likely be fined, but little or no remediation will be performed. How do you extract millions of gallons of toxic slickwater from a mountain stream. You don't. The fish die, the stream dies, and people downstream drink the stuff, now diluted but still there when municipalities pump it into homes.

The safety claims of drillers are a canard. You can not drill through aquifers and force toxic chemicals down the well at high pressure, and then pump those chemicals out and dispose of them without contaminating groundwater and the surrounding environment. You can not guarantee that a concrete or steel lining of a well extending 500 or 1000 feet below the surface will not fail and allow chemicals pumped in at high pressure to seep into surrounding aquifers. You can not guarantee that chemicals pumped into a well that extends horizontally 10,000 or 15,000 feet will not be compromised by cracks that allow methane (natural gas) and fracking fluids at high pressure to seep upward and contaminate groundwater. In fact, such seepage of gas occurs naturally. That is the explanation gas companies give when methane does contaminate groundwater and they seek to repudiate peer-reviewed scientific studies with sneering, specious argument. (Several links here are borrowed from "Rolling Stone Responds to Chesapeake Energy on 'The Fracking Bubble'" -- a worthwhile read.)

"The Fuss Over Fracking: The Dilemma of a New Gas Boom" -- Time


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Don Siegelman: An American Political Prisoner

This guy got screwed big time. He reported to jail in Alabama yesterday (11-Sep-2012).

He tried to pass a referendum guaranteeing free college education to impoverished students in Alabama... Karl Rove & Co threw him in jail so his opponent in his campaign for governor would win.

They convicted Siegelman of taking a bribe, but the charge is unfounded and unprecedented in terms of overreaching. Lots of people who know, say so. No matter, his opponent's wife was the federal prosecutor. This case has gone on for years, Siegelman spent nine months in jail, and his life is pretty much ruined. And then the Supreme Court turned down his appeal.

I never thought this prosecution would be at this point. I am at
the end of my rope and you are my last hope for freedom.

I thought Karl Rove’s involvement and the fact that my
prosecutor’s husband was running my opponent’s campaign
would have ended this. -- Don Seigelman

When I grew up, teachers told us about this sort of persecution happening in the Soviet Union and banana republics and I felt glad to be an American. Can we feel glad if this conviction stands?

If you sympathize at all, and do not believe the US should imprison people for political opposition, please sign the petition.

Visit his page,, or go straight to the petition at

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Belle Isle: Sold!

Belle Isle Main Canal -- 1900-1920 (Library of Congress)

Governor Snyder's office announced a deal today to sell Belle Isle to Grand Rapids based property developer, Grand Luxury Estates. A spokesperson for the governor, Hal Itocis noted that under the current consent agreement an appointed financial management team in Detroit holds the authority to sell city assets to meet financial obligations. The consent agreement resulted from efforts between the city and state to forestall the Public Act 4 appointment of an emergency manager to run the city. Also, Itocis emphasized the city's current budget shortfall, and the grave implications of a municipal bankruptcy filing.

When asked about the rational for disposing of one of Detroit's prize assets without prior notice or bidding from other potential buyers, a member of the city's financial management team appointed by the governor, Neo Conservatorio, replied, "Belle Isle as it stands... or just sits there really... Belle Isle is nothing but a big vacant lot sitting out there in the river. There are very few improvements worth noting, and the only thing that makes it an 'Isle' is the fact that it's stranded out there. There's really nothing 'Belle' about it. Basically."

In addition to city operating expenses, the city's financial obligations include debt servicing on municipal bonds issued for capital improvements and "financial stabilization." The outstanding principal on these bonds amounts to $5.6 billion (about 3.3 times the annual $1.7 billion city budget). Interest payments and derivative expenses amount to about $132 million per year. Principal payments come to $88 million, for a total debt cost per year of $220.4 million, which makes debt-servicing the second largest item on the city budget.

"Bankruptcy is not an option," Conservatorio said, "It's not just the police, fire, trash collection and all that city stuff we're talking about here."

Conservatorio explained that bankruptcy would mean default on principal and interest payments for the city's bonds. Underwritten by banks such as Citigroup, JPMorgan, Loop Capital, Morgan Stanley, SBS and UBS, a bond default would mean these banks face diminished profits. Of course, credit default swaps purchased by the city will likely prevent default on the bond payments -- the issuer of the credit default swaps, in essence an insurer of the bonds, will make the principal and interest payments should the city default, but under that eventuality, the insurer requires the city to make accelerated, lump sum payments -- similar to a mortgage balloon payment.

"That would be the worst case scenario." Hal Itocis said. "In that case the banks just won't get paid, they will lose money, and then all hell breaks loose. Basically."

Itocis described the scenario this way: if the city defaults on its bond payments, the city's credit rating will be downgraded, possibly to junk bond status, which would require the city to pay elevated interest rates on future bond issues. In addition, if the city fails to make its accelerated, lump-sum payment then the insurer might tumble (remember AIG?), and there will be no firewall to protect underwriters -- banks such as Citigroup, JPMorgan, Loop Capital, Morgan Stanley, SBS and UBS. If no one pays the banks, they will take a hit to their balance sheets and ultimately face diminished employee bonuses. That is a scenario that neither Hal Itocis nor Neo Conservatorio was willing to comment on. Given the close ties between bankers and politicians fostered by generous campaign contributions and revolving door employment opportunities offered to "retired" politicians, most lawmakers consider pleasing bankers one of the foremost obligations of their office.


Friday, August 3, 2012

The Superfluous Class


For a republic founded by proponents of meritocracy, dedicated to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," it seems we stray from our mission a little. European style inherited royalty and persistent aristocracy represent the antithesis of our founders' ideals: life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Those founders supposed happiness and prosperity would accrue to those who earned it, not those who belonged to the right church, club, political party, or corporate board (race and sex were omitted from that list).
Now, reversion from the meritocratic ideal infects our culture. Few take offense at the cultivation of a crass ruling-class in our midst. With obscene piles of cash, our self-appointed aristocracy insulate themselves from the endemic sickness, poverty, and inadequate opportunity to learn and earn that plague the vast majority of us. Few objected while those who profited most over the last three decades decreed they should contribute the least. Toward that goal, the rich mastered a strategy to retain wealth; that is, to minimize their taxes. Equally insidious, they elevated their social status and esteem via the media outlets they own: movies, television shows, and magazine articles that celebrate riches but ignore the method of acquiring those riches. Not only do they extract wealth from us -- the vast un-wealthy majority -- but they extract our praise and admiration, too. They seize their pound of flesh, and expect us to applaud as they lop it off.
Our praise and admiration yields more than icing on the cake. Praise serves an essential purpose. Our collective fawning over the rich erects in our minds psychological barriers to the creation of laws that would impede retention of filthy lucre. We want so much to be like them we defy egalitarian attempts to inhibit unjust concentration of wealth. We fear friction on the upward flow of wealth will prevent our own acquisition of fabulous excess. In addition, our universal admiration of wealth grants the overfed an unassailable bully pulpit.

Of course, the rich do not risk climbing the towering pulpit themselves, their loyal designees do: politicians. Politicians financed by the wealthy eagerly and often reel off the virtues of their benefactors. And, like artists blessed with a devoted patron, the art tends to fit the taste of the sponsor. Bought politicians remind us, falsely: the rich create jobs for the rest of us. That sounds logical. It sounds inevitable. But it is not true. The vast majority of the rich are not business operators, but passive investors. They do not hire anyone. They seek maximum gain on investment. They are part of the constituency corporate CEO's and boards swear their allegiance to: investing shareholders (mutual and pension fund managers form the remaining bulk of that constituency).
Maximizing returns for shareholders does not require facilitating prosperity for domestic wage earners. On the contrary, with laws passed over the last thirty years by presidents and legislatures beholden to the rich, most corporations find it easier to exploit "free" trade rules and create wealth overseas. Overseas labor comes cheap. Overseas workplaces profitably omit modern standards for worker safety, health, and pensions, not to mention environmental protection. If free markets existed, this would not be the case. Impoverishing, poisoning and maiming your employees and rendering your environment toxic imposes costs. In a free market, violators would logically pay the assessed cost of worker and environmental abuse. Consumers would reject purely on a price basis products from companies that incur the highest overhead for worker injuries, workplace induced ill-health, and environmental degradation.

Besides pure cost consideration, would you buy a product from someone you knew poisoned your wife and then fired her, or lopped off the hand of your cousin and then fired him, or spilled mercury in your drinking water and ignored your plea for cleanup? Not likely. Not if you had a choice. A free, fully transparent market reveals such realities.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Yucca. Pinnacle of Waste?

Yucca Mountain, Nevada
photo: Wikipedia

UPDATE: 7-Aug-2012:
Court Weighs an Order on Nuclear Waste Site in Nevada (NY Times)

According to the federal appeals court in Washington DC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must make a determination on the fitness of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste storage facility unless Congress rules by December 14th that the NRC should abandon the evaluation. Despite President Obama's 2010 stop work order on the site, Congress failed to suspend the commission's work, while at the same time failing to fund further study by the commission.

Original story:
On 5-July-2012, The New York Times ran the following editorial: "Remember Yucca Mountain?" The article describes the intended use for the underground facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada; the dire need to dispose of spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants; and goes on to say: "It would be easier to monitor and inspect the rods and cheaper to guard them in a central location."

Respectfully, I disagree with that assessment.

When calamity, either human-induced or nature-induced, visits a designated central storage site, you can be sure human errors and technical failures will pop up like mushrooms, just as they did at Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fermi I.

Fermi I, topic of "We Almost Lost Detroit"
photo: Beyond Nuclear

Fermi I, the first (and only) breeder reactor to operate commercially in the US -- the great promise of a reactor that runs practically forever on teaspoons of fuel -- failed and suffered a partial meltdown shortly after it began operation. Fermi II, operated off and on since 1988 on the same site (near Monroe, Michigan), houses tons of spent fuel rods in an unshielded pool five stories above the reactor containment vessel. The contractor who installed a crane for moving the rods from the pool executed numerous welds improperly. Packed in to twice design capacity (with NRC approval), the rods were impossible to move due to a gimped crane. Those welds have been fixed, we are assured, and the rods can be moved. But now, the plant awaits seismic analysis before proceeding with a "dry" run test of the crane -- designers of the plant did not consider the possibility of a temblor. They are not unheard of in the Midwest. One destroyed New Madrid, Missouri about a century ago.

New Madrid, Missouri, December 16, 1811
photo: Smithsonian Magazine

The nuclear power industry has been a bungled, subsidy dependent, clown show since its inception with no tangible benefit for the society that naively supported it. We are stuck with overpriced, unreliable (shutdowns of months or years are common) sources of electricity. Now the plan is to move spent fuel at Fermi II and other plants to shielded "dry casks" and store it on site. That, according to many, is the safest plan: keep it on site in comparatively small quantities. Moving it presents even greater danger. Pack it in low volume, stable, hardened containers, build walls around it, and pay guards to watch it you hope you can trust. If utilities transport the spent fuel to a central location, state and federal forces insist on militarizing roads, rails, and rivers -- demanding ID from travelers, detaining anyone "suspicious" -- to protect against terrorists. Utilities can not guarantee the fuel will not fall off a truck or train or barge due to mechanical failure (ill-maintained bridge collapse?). If that happens, we'll have a disaster in an unforeseen, possibly well-populated, location with no evacuation plan (no one could design a credible evacuation plan for every inch of the route between say upstate New York and Yucca Mountain). Once the disaster occurs, of course, crews will have thousands of years to contemplate clean up -- that's how long some of the isotopes in spent fuel rods hang around in toxic concentration. Keep the spent fuel where it is, and create no more. Efficiency improvements and distributed renewables are cheaper and more reliable.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Krystal Crittendon Demonstrates Courage of Her Conviction

photo: Detroit Free Press
Update 29-JUN-12: Crittendon silent on whether she will drop legal challenge; $28 million in jeopardy (Detroit Free Press)

Update 22-JUN-12:  Detroit attorney Krystal Crittendon expected to survive City Council vote today on her firing (Detroit Free Press): Mayor Bing asked the City Council to fire her. The council will vote later.. A two-thirds vote is required to pass Bing's request. At the moment, it appears unlikely to pass, according to Charles Pugh, Council President.

Keep in mind, Bing initially supported Crittendon's lawsuit, apparently until it complicated his life too much, and then he cravenly turned his back on her. Keep in mind, too: Crittendon opposed the new provision in the revised city Charter that allows corporation counsel to independently pursue lawsuits. According to the Free Press, "Crittendon argued against the changes, foreseeing that the extraordinary powers could force actions that put the mayor's trust of the city's top lawyer at risk."

Update 13-JUN-12: Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette dismissed Crittendon's lawsuit. Cheers for Krystal Crittendon for sticking with it until the bitter end, where she faced the feckless Mayor, all lawyer-ed up with private counsel, in court.

Here is the letter she wrote to her staff before Collette dismissed her lawsuit:

Crittendon should stand her ground. Krystal Crittendon, corporation counsel for the City of Detroit filed a lawsuit that asserts the Consent Agreement with the state, agreed to by Mayor Bing and five members of the City Council, is unenforceable because the agreement was made with an entity in default: the State of Michigan. Crittendon contends that the state is in arrears on its sales tax revenue sharing obligation to the city -- an obligation agreed to by former Governor John Engler and former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer back in 1997. According to Crittendon, the city, per city charter restrictions, has no authority to enter into further agreements with the state while the state remains in default on these obligations, which amount to $224 million by Crittendon's account.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Memorial Day 2012

Memorial Day in Ferndale Michigan is a big deal. Flocks of residents show up for the parade. The route must be almost a mile, and folks stand shoulder to shoulder all along. Others bring chairs and sit back in shady spots, baby strollers parked here and there. Dogs wear Old Glory bandanas and mingle sociably with one another. Kids push toys around on the sidewalk and cry when the confusion and din are too much for them.

The moment is all-American. I feel honored to witness the veterans marching by, old and young, stoic and resolute. I wave to the firemen and police, decked out in their parade uniforms. I feel proud to be a part of it.

After the parade, a solemn ceremony with a rendition of the national anthem and "You're A Grand Old Flag" by the high school marching band; speeches from the mayor, organizers, and local veterans; a twenty one gun salute, flag raising, and "Taps" played by members of the high school marching band wrap up the events.

A local Vietnam veteran, Captain Ken Richardson, US Army, Retired spoke of his service and those he served with. He said, "We do not honor war, we honor those who sacrifice for our country." (I paraphrase the second part, the first part is right, though.) I felt privileged and inspired to hear him speak of his recollections with such equanimity and humility.

Helen Weber, a longtime organizer of the event, read the Honor Roll, which includes the names of Ferndale soldiers lost in conflicts dating back to WW I (I think some are from WW I, the tradition of the Memorial Day ceremony in Ferndale began 94 years ago.)

Here's some pics if you missed the parade in your town:


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chevron Leak In Brazil: Charges Focus On Safety

Chevron's Spending Spree:
With Profit Down, a Move to Exploit High-Priced Crude
By Kirsten Korosec (CBS Money Watch)

The prosecutor, Santos de Oliveira, said the ongoing leaks provide evidence of irreversible damage. "There's no way to stop this leak until the reservoir is depleted," he said on Monday. "The seal was cracked and oil will leak until it's gone." Chevron spokesman Kurt Glaubitz said the company responded to the incident responsibly and dealt transparently with all authorities. "The flow of oil from the source was stopped within four days and the company continues to make significant progress in containing any residual oil,"
Lately, I haven't posted much here -- been too busy seeking filthy lucre to pay my bills. But this report from Reuters on the Chevron spill in Brazil snapped me out my labor-induced fugue state. I don't usually re-post stories, but Reuters gives a clear, concise review of events to date worth revisiting. So, see below.

The report reinforces my assumption that these oil guys will do anything to save a buck and get at oil that they should have left alone in the first place. Technology always fails, and if you operate near the margins, it fails sooner and more often. Case in point:
Brazil Chevron oil leak charges to focus on safety
03/19/2012 09:56 PM EDT Copyright 2012 Reuters (link is for updated story)
*Police report alleges Chevron cut safety margins * Chevron says it followed industry drilling norms * Some see charges as unfair, say gov't shares blame By Jeb Blount RIO DE JANEIRO, March 19 (Reuters) - A Brazilian prosecutor plans to allege this week that Chevron and Transocean should not have drilled a deep-water well that leaked in November, legal documents showed, giving a glimpse into expected criminal charges that could slow the rush to develop Brazil's vast offshore oil wealth. The accident cracked geological structures in the reservoir and oil will continue leaking from the field until it is emptied, the prosecutor Eduardo Santos de Oliveira told Reuters in a telephone interview on Monday. The prosecutor's comments expanded on his investigations and police reports being used to assemble criminal indictments against U.S. oil company Chevron, drill-rig operator Transocean, and 17 of their executives and employees. The documents, obtained by Reuters, provided the most detailed look yet at possible causes of the oil leak off Brazil's southern coast. They also outline why prosecutors are seeking criminal charges for what industry watchers note is a relatively small spill at a well that was approved for drilling by Brazilian regulators. "We are in uncharted territory," said Cleveland Jones, a Brazilian oil geologist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. "Do we want better environmental standards? Yes. Did the environment get really hurt? No. If you applied the same standards to the whole industry, you'd probably have to shut it down, and we aren't applying the same standards to others."