David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “February, 2017”

What is American culture?

Recently, Pew conducted a survey examining the attitudes of Americans toward immigrants and non-whites.  77% PERCENT of Republicans (the Republican party is now 90% white) responded that immigration threatens American customs and values.  More and more, we hear about threats to the “America way of life.”

Earlier this month, Pew conducted a survey asking Americans what it takes for them to consider someone to have a shared national identity with them – other words, to be a genuine American.  Less than 50% said that “shared customs and traditions” were very important, and only about 30% said that being Christian was very important.  The different responses of different age groups were dramatic.  Among Americans 50 and older, 55% said that shared customs and traditions were very important.  But among Americans 18 to 34, only 28% said that customs and traditions were very important.

There is a clear association between such opinions and education levels.  Among Americans with only high school or less, about 55% said that shared customs and traditions were very important in being an American, and 45% said that being a Christian was very important.  By contrast, among those with college degrees, only about 30% said that shared customs and traditions were very important, and less than 20% considered being a Christian to be very important.

But what is truly shocking is when we look at how Republicans responded.  Among Republicans, a whopping 60% said that customs and values were very important, and more than 40% said that being a Christian was very important.  By contrast, only 40% of Independents and 38% of Democrats considered customs and values to be very important.  Only 29% of Independents and 26% of Democrats considered being a Christian to be very important.

Think about that.  There are about 6 million Jews in the U.S., 1.1 million in New York City.  Almost 1 out of 3 Americans do not identify themselves as Christians.  Almost 1 out of 4 Americans claim no religious affiliation.  Yet more than 4 OUT OF 10 Republicans believe that being a Christian is not just important, but VERY IMPORTANT to being a genuine American.  Such a result should instigate an enormous national soul-searching.  Of course it won’t.  But the fact is, it has never really been about religion.  Religion is merely a marker, a guidepost for something broader.  “Customs and traditions.”  It’s about culture.

What is American culture?  There are some cultural phenomena that are uniquely American, at least in their origins.  Baseball, hot dogs, and jazz, for example.  Are Republicans concerned that immigrants aren’t going to baseball games, eating hot dogs, or listening to jazz?  I don’t think so.  How about Mickey Mouse?  That’s uniquely American.  Are Republicans concerned that immigrants aren’t going to Disney World?  I don’t think so.

The truth is, America doesn’t have a well-defined culture, not the way intellectuals think of culture – a distinct language, a well-defined musical tradition, a well-defined cuisine, and so on.  That’s not to say that America doesn’t have a cultural legacy.  Just look at our national holidays.  We have Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, among others.  These are fundamentally Christian holidays, although Easter and Christmas incorporate many pagan traditions.  But Americans celebrate other holidays too – Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Halloween for example.  Halloween is a particularly interesting case.  It was not widely celebrated in America in the early 19th century.  When Irish Catholic and other immigrant communities arrived in the mid 19th century, it was largely restricted to those immigrant communities.  Gradually, over the next 50 years, it became integrated into mainstream American society.

Although there are a small minority of American Christians who refuse to celebrate Easter and Christmas in the usual way, rejecting customs that have pagan origins, most American Christians embrace these customs.  The same is true of many other cultural elements – food, music, architecture, and so on.  All of these borrow from a variety of cultural sources.  And Americans, even Republicans, have long embraced the new and different, whether it be rock and roll, Jewish humor, or Mexican food.  So what are the “customs and values” that Republicans think are in danger?

The answer lies in examining the focus of much conservative propaganda.  There has long been a veiled reference to the white Protestant work ethic, a glorification of the “hard-working” white person, with an implication that others are parasitizing or impeding his efforts.  In the 19th century it was white settlers and entrepreneurs who were glorified, and the “savage” Native Americans who were the impediment.  In the early 20th century it was Catholics and Jews who were vilified, spreading communism and lacking the strong moral character of the white Protestant.  And in the late 20th century it became the African-American who was the villain, who was now parasitizing hard-working white America with the help of the liberal elite.

The message has sunk in, generation after generation, to the point that it is now highly internalized by many white Americans, particularly white American males.  They are the ones who are supposedly disadvantaged now.  Non-whites and women get preference in everything.  The hard work of “real” Americans is being siphoned off to support lazy people.  Immigrants and brown people in general just want handouts.  The work ethic is dying.

This is what the 77% of Republicans are really talking about when they say immigration threatens “customs and values.”  This is the “American way of life” that is supposedly under threat.  As the middle class is increasingly squeezed, white working class America has been relentlessly propagandized with exactly what it wants to hear – that it is not trickle-down economics that has failed them, but Washington liberals who stay in power by providing handouts to lazy parasites.  It is not the virtual destruction of labor unions and the rise of automation that is to blame for job loss and stagnant wages, it’s burdensome regulation and taxation.  This message has suited corporate America, at least the part of corporate America that relies on cheap labor and low taxes.

On the other hand, the new economy of technology relies on well-educated workers of various cultures, and from all over the world.  Not surprisingly, the big movers and shakers in this economy have reacted quite negatively to immigration bans and attacks on multiculturalism.  The current CEO of Google is Indian-American.  31% of its workforce and 20% of its leadership is Asian-American.  And in virtually every major tech company, the percentage of non-white employees is growing.  That’s the future.  The growth industries of America require well-educated, diverse workforces.  There are no excuses and no cultural favorites.  America isn’t going back.  But Republican America doesn’t want to go forward either.


Pathological Competitiveness

When I was a kid, I played a lot of little league baseball.  Like any game, baseball has an object.  The object of the game is to win.  But that’s not the PURPOSE of the game.  The purpose of little league baseball is to teach kids important things.  Things like teamwork, determination, sacrifice, and sportsmanship.  It’s healthy competition.

Healthy competition is a positive force more generally.  It drives our economy, gives us good products at reasonable prices, and leads us to improve ourselves, both mentally and materially.  The same is true of healthy competition between friendly countries.  Every country, like every person, has strengths and weaknesses.  Having different countries, or people, compete, reveals what works best.

Notice that healthy competition, in baseball or in life, depends on FAIRNESS.  If we’re playing Monopoly, and I start with 1 dollar, while you start with 1,000 dollars – well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what will happen.  The lack of fairness leads to a monopoly, which is exactly what we want to avoid, if we want healthy competition.

On the other hand, there is pathological competitiveness.  This can be summed up in one phrase – “winning is everything.”  Pathological competitiveness is inherently in conflict with democratic values of justice and equality.  It says, “Rules and rights are secondary to winning.  I will bend the rules, or break them if necessary, to win.  If winning means hurting others, so be it.”  It leads to resentment and hostility and destruction.

There is a fundamental tension between the ideals of American democracy and the cynicism of pathological competitiveness.  The middle class was created by the reform movements of the late 19th century, in response to unchecked greed.  Without these, it is doubtful our country would have survived.  The Great Depression was the final nail in the coffin of pathological competitiveness.  Or was it?  There is always a push to reduce regulation of business, a nostalgia for the frontier, a time in which life was pretty unregulated and a great deal seemed to be up for grabs.  Mostly this merely delays progress, but a point is reached at which progressives become impatient and unwilling to wait.  We have now reached that point.

Capitalism has proven itself as a driver of well-being for large numbers of people.  But not unbridled capitalism.  On the contrary, it is countries that have strong labor unions and strong controls over corporations that have the highest median incomes, the highest levels of education, and the highest life expectancies in the world.  Increasingly, young Americans are looking at the players and saying, “Why do we have to do without free college, free health care, and good pension plans?”

But there is a larger, much more encompassing problem with pathological competitiveness.  The desire to get the better of others, to dominate others, ultimately leads to military conflict.  People, and countries, don’t appreciate being dominated.  Only a few hundred years ago, much of the world was controlled by a few empires.  Not today.

One of the most underappreciated leaders of the 20th century was Mikhail Gorbachev.  He was the first Soviet leader to really understand that reducing tension and fear in your adversary INCREASES your security.  Many people have forgotten that in 1986, Gorbachev and Reagan agreed in principle to eliminate all of their nuclear weapons by 1996.  In 1990 he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

But last month, Gorbachev authored an article in Time magazine.  In it he wrote, “Today, however, the nuclear threat once again seems real.  Relations between the great powers have been going from bad to worse for several years now. The advocates for arms build-up and the military-industrial complex are rubbing their hands….The focus should once again be on preventing war, phasing out the arms race, and reducing weapons arsenals. The goal should be to agree, not just on nuclear weapons levels and ceilings, but also on missile defense and strategic stability.”  And most strikingly of all:  “In modern world, wars must be outlawed, because none of the global problems we are facing can be resolved by war — not poverty, nor the environment, migration, population growth, or shortages of resources.”

A short time ago, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its doomsday clock to 2.5 minutes before midnight, the closest it has been since 1953.  A big part of the reason is the rise of pathological competitiveness.  A failure to understand that the politics of domination and militarism are obsolete.  They will get us all killed.  In December of 2016, Vladimir Putin said that Russia needed to “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems.”  A short time later, our current president responded with “Let it be an arms race.  We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

The stunning failure of these leaders to understand the lessons of history is quite discouraging.  Over and over again, history has shown us that increasing tensions, that increasing fear, leads to war, not peace.  Pathological competitiveness is a ticking time bomb that sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces.  We are stuck in a room full of gasoline, arguing with our adversaries about how many more matches we can make than they can.  Some things are very, very hard to recover from.  Will we come to our senses in time?  Or do things have to get much, much worse before they get better?

How many times do I have to repeat a falsehood before you call it a lie?

Politics has never been about truth.  The real genius of our founding fathers does not lie in one person one vote or high-minded ideals, as important as those are.  It lies in something very pragmatic and critical – checks and balances.  The founders knew that power must always be balanced by opposing power.  They knew that “unity” often translates into dictatorship.  There are lots of checks and balances within government, and they are very important.  But equally important, if not more so, is the free press, the so-called “fourth estate.”  Its job is to speak truth to power, to be a check on the promulgation of distortions, obfuscations, and outright lies.

This week, our new president, Mr. GTP, stated (again) a falsehood about crime in America, specifically the murder rate.  Here are his exact words:  “….the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years, right?  Did you know that?  Forty-seven years. I used to use that — I’d say that in a speech and everybody was surprised, because the press doesn’t tell it like it is.  It wasn’t to their advantage to say that.  But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, from 45 to 47 years.”

The murder rate in America, year by year, is not a matter of opinion.  It is a well-studied, well-documented number.  The FBI has compiled murder statistics, painstakingly, for decades.  The rate of murders and non-negligent manslaughters in 2015, the most recent year for which data have been compiled, was 4.9 per 100,000 people.  It is one of the lowest rates in the last 50 years:


In 1980, the murder rate in America peaked at 10.2 per 100,000.  In other words, it’s less than half of what it was at its peak.  Since the early 1990’s it has declined steadily, along with the decline in the overall crime rate.  The murder rate is now down to about what it was in 1960.  Those are the facts.  These facts are not open to debate.

The falsehood that the murder rate is at record highs has been repeated by Mr. GTP, not once or twice, but numerous times.  Here are his words at a rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, on October 30, 2016:  “Murder is – in 45 years, right now, the rates are the highest they’ve ever been….”  Here are his words at a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, the day before:  “The murder rate in the United States, it’s the worst, the highest it’s been in 45 years.”  Here are his words at a speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the day before that:  “We have the highest murder rate in this country in 45 years.”  Here are his words at a speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, 2 days before that:  “You know the murder rate in the United States, I don’t know if you know this because the press never talks about it, is the highest it’s been, think of this, in 45 years.  Nobody knows that. The murder rate, highest it’s been in 45 years.”  5 days before this he made the same claim in Fletcher, North Carolina.  10 days before that, in Panama City, Florida, he said “And by the way, do you know, it was just announced that murder is the highest it’s been in our country in 45 years?”

And in Feb 2017, he says the same thing again.  At least 7 times now, he has repeated the same falsehood.  By now of course numerous media outlets have debunked this, showing the well-documented decline in murder rates over the last 25 years.

I can believe 2 things about this:  (1) Mr. GTP is a fool who doesn’t actually understand things like murder rates, or can’t read numbers on a page, or interpret a simple graph, or (2) Mr. GTP is a liar who is well acquainted with the relevant facts and chooses to speak falsehoods.

I don’t think Mr. GTP is a fool.

In fact, we don’t have to look very far to find the probable source of Mr. GTP’s falsehood.  On September 26, 2016, the NY Times published an article entitled “U.S. Murders Surged in 2015, F.B.I. Finds.”  The murder rate increased from 4.4 per 100,000 in 2014 to 4.9 per 100,000 in 2015.  This is an 11% increase, the largest 1-year jump since 1968.  But as you can see from the graph above, it’s not very significant compared to the long-term trend.  Over the last 10 years, the murder rate has DECLINED 13%.

Not long after, in the second presidential debate, on October 9, 2016, Mr. GTP said “We have an increase in murder within our cities, the biggest in 45 years.”  Yep, that happens to be correct.  The question is, is it significant, compared to the long-term trend?  Mark Twain famously said, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  The straightforward, indisputable facts in this case say that crime rates, including murder rates, are at their lowest point since the 1960’s.  This inconvenient fact doesn’t fit in with Mr. GTP’s narrative one bit.  So he turns a fact about the one-year growth in crime rates into a lie about the long-term trend.

Most of the media, meanwhile, after at least the 8th repetition from him of this falsehood, refuses to call it a lie:

NPR:  In meeting with sheriffs, Trump repeats false murder statistic

CNN:  Trump falsely claims US murder rate is ‘highest” in 47 years

CBS:  President Trump gets the facts backwards in claim about murder rates

Fox:  President Trump falsely claims US murder rate is ‘highest’ in 47 years

Washington Post:  Trump makes false statement about U.S. murder rate to sheriffs’ group

I could go on.  But the point is that the media and Mr. GTP keep going back and forth, endlessly.  He speaks the same falsehood, they call it false.  Only 1 major media outlet, MSNBC, called it a lie:

MSNBC:  There’s a reason Trump keeps lying about the U.S. murder rate

The author of this article, Steven Benen, noted that Trump has been repeatedly corrected on this point.  He knows very well it’s not true.  But he keeps repeating the falsehood.  That’s called a lie.

Tellingly, when Wisconsin Governor Rick Santorum was asked about this recently, he didn’t challenge the facts.  He acknowledged that the murder rate is way, way down.  But he offered this:  “I think Trump speaks more from emotional and how he’s feeling than he does necessarily being bound by all the facts.”

Imagine if we treated every issue this way.  If the economy were booming, but the president told us that we were in a depression, ‘cause he didn’t feel bound by all the facts.  If people were getting healthier and living longer, but the president told us that we are all dying of cancer, ‘cause he didn’t feel bound by all the facts.  If one of our aircraft carriers sunk due to a mechanical failure, but the president told us that the Chinese attacked it, ‘cause he didn’t feel bound by all the facts.

This is the foremost problem with our media today.  Mr. GTP repeats falsehoods, over and over and over.  But the media doesn’t call them lies.  His inaugural address was full of darkness about the state of the country.  He blamed other countries for job loss, when most of the job loss in America is due to automation.  He talked about getting everyone, including those on welfare, back to work.  But unemployment in America is low, and the number of people on welfare today is a fraction of what it was 20 years ago.  He blamed politicians for a failure to defend the country’s borders, but in fact the Border Patrol’s budget has more than doubled in the last 17 years, the number of agents has doubled, and apprehensions of illegals at the border have declined by 75%.  And he talked about a crime-ridden country when crime rates are at their lowest levels in half a century.

We did not get to this place all of the sudden.  It has been years coming.  Much of the mainstream media has trapped itself in a dangerous philosophy:  “Everything is just someone’s opinion.”  This philosophy worked pretty well when most everyone agreed on the basic facts.  But if everyone is entitled to their own facts, we are in an Orwellian world, where war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.  It is no accident that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four recently became a best seller again.  In Orwell’s novel, doublethink is everywhere.  Whiteblack for example.  Whiteblack, in the Orwellian world, means 2 mutually contradictory things.  When applied to an opponent, it refers to their habit of claiming that white is black, an obvious contradiction.  But when applied to oneself, it means to accept that white is black, if the party line demands it.

Is this so different from what we have now?  In July of 2015, Rick Perry said this of Donald Trump:  ““My fellow Republicans, beware of false prophets.  Do not let itching ears be tickled by messengers who appeal to anger, division and resentment.  I will not go quiet when this cancer on conservatism threatens to metastasize into a movement of mean-spirited politics that will send the Republican Party to the same place it sent the Whig Party in 1854: the graveyard.”  He went on to characterize Trump as “a barking carnival act” who offers a “toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.”  In May of 2016, this same Rick Perry endorsed Donald Trump, saying “He is one of the most talented people who has ever run for the president I have ever seen,” and offered to be his running mate.  Today this same Rick Perry is Mr. GTP’s nominee for Secretary of Energy.

I do not blame politicians for being politicians.  I do say that the media is at a critical point.  It will have to reaffirm its commitment to facts, to refuse to call a lie a mere falsehood or misstep, or we will lose the fourth estate as a check on dictatorship.

Pleasant Fantasies and Harsh Realities

Our new president, Mr. GTP, has made sweeping promises to “bring back” the fossil fuel industry.  I wonder how long his supporters are going to linger on Fantasy Island.

In the first place, the oil industry has already been “brought back” by the fracking boom.  After a steady decline in American oil production since the 1970’s, it has shot up dramatically in the last 10 years, thanks to the boom in hydraulic fracturing.  America is now producing as much crude oil as it did in the 1980’s, and almost as much as it did in 1970:


All this has done is make the price of crude oil collapse, which is why big oil-producing states like Louisiana are struggling.  Jobs in oil extraction have jumped up a bit with the fracking boom, but still remain far below the levels of the 1970’s or 1980’s:


This is partly because, like virtually every industry, the oil industry has seen the rise of automation, and automation will likely accelerate in the future.

How about coal?  Well, American coal production has actually increased over the last 30 years:


Yet jobs in American coal mining have declined since 1985, and are now less than half of what they were then:


Again, much of the loss of jobs is due to automation.  In industry after industry, automation has siphoned off jobs.  But even more significant is the on-coming freight train of renewables.  60 PERCENT of the coal America exports goes to Europe.  But Europe is rapidly moving toward renewable energy sources, such as solar power:


As you can see, China is doing the same.  What happens when Europe doesn’t need American coal any more?  Exactly what is happening right now.  Since peaking in 2007, coal consumption in Europe has declined more than 10%:


At the same time, American coal production has declined – about 13%.  The world simply doesn’t need coal.  Are we going to somehow FORCE them to use it?  Notice that coal consumption is declining in America as well.  Production has declined because consumption has declined.  The price of coal has dropped steadily for the last 7 years.  As Europe and China move steadily toward renewables, the price will eventually drop so low that it will no longer be economical to mine coal.

“Well,” you might counter, “all of this assumes the crappy economic growth rate we’ve had for the last 15 years.  When we deregulate industry and relieve its tax burden, growth will explode and the demand for fossil fuels will shoot up.”  The problem with this fantasy is that history tells us otherwise.  Yes, we can stimulate economic growth by investing in new infrastructure.  But that’s very temporary.  New roads, new bridges, new power grids are fine, but the whole point of that stuff is to get products and services to someone who is going to consume them.  What are people going to buy?  More refrigerators?  More washing machines?

Much of the economic growth of 20th century was built on the sale of technology to people who had never had it before – things like television sets and air conditioners.  And the reason that people in manufacturing could afford those things is because of the power of labor unions.  Organized labor created a thriving American middle class, and organized labor kept it going through much of the 20th century.  The Democratic party controlled the U.S. Congress for 44 of 48 years from 1932 to 1980.  Those days are gone.

Now the leading edge of technology consists of things like smart phones, social media, and – guess what?  Renewable energy technology.  Yes, we can build a lot of new renewable energy infrastructure, and that would create lots of jobs, at least in the short term.  But this is the very thing Mr. GTP seems to want to avoid!  Instead he seems stuck in this mid 20th century nostalgia.  I guess it’s not too surprising, since he was born in 1946, and grew up in the post-war boom years.

This graph shows the real growth rate in America’s per capita GDP over the last 70 years:


Of course there are lots of year-to-year swings, but the overall trend is clear.  Over the last 70 years, the growth rate of the American economy has gradually slowed.  Before 1967, it was usually above 5%.  Since the early 1980’s, it has generally been below 4%.  Contrary to popular myth, Reagan didn’t turn things around.  The computer/internet boom of the late 1990’s was a brief period of higher growth, above 4%.  But Reagan’s trickle-down economics have been a dismal failure.

The utility industry, unlike the fossil fuel industry, understands that renewables are the future.  Some states like Delaware and Idaho already get most of their electrical power from renewables.  But this isn’t going to bring back the boom times of the mid 20th century either.  Nothing will.  We don’t need boom times.  America has low unemployment.  We need a thriving middle class.  That we can bring back.  But not by living in the past.

A Tale of 2 Continents

This map shows the distribution, approximately, of the resource available for solar power across the world:


There are 2 things I want you to particularly note.  One is that virtually the entire United States is either yellow or red.  The other is that most of Europe is green.  In other words, Europe has inherently far less solar potential than America.

Now let’s look at the installed solar power capacity in America as of 2015:


As you can see, California leads the country by far, although a few other states have quite a lot.  What about Europe?


Of course these 2 maps have different color schemes.  So let’s compare say, Arizona and Texas, to Germany and Great Britain.  Notice that Arizona has tons of solar potential:


Arizona’s installed capacity is 1000-2000 Megawatts.  Texas has 300-400 Megawatts.  And Germany?  39,700 MEGAWATTS!  Great Britain?  8780 MEGAWATTS.

European countries with far less solar potential than America have already put in place tons of solar capacity, and are continuing to build much more.  Germany has about the same solar resource as Alaska!  That isn’t stopping them from building solar plants.  China is also building up capacity rapidly:


Many European countries are also building wind farms like crazy.  As of 2014, Europe had a total wind power capacity of almost 130,000 Megawatts, to America’s less than 80,000.

If wind and solar aren’t economical and can’t work, why on earth are European countries ramping them up like crazy?  Germany is a good example.  Germany already has, as I said, 40,000 Megawatts of solar capacity.  It also has about 45,000 Megawatts of wind power capacity.  Much of this is produced by offshore wind farms.  Germany is planning to produce 35% of its electricity from renewables within only 3 years, and 80 PERCENT by 2050.

And China?  China is a leader in wind power.  As of last year, it had a total wind power capacity of 150,000 Megawatts, almost double that of America.  It added another 19,000 Megawatts in a single year, more than the EXISTING wind capacity of any U.S. state.

60% of America’s coal exports go to Europe.  What happens when European countries move to renewables, and don’t need America’s coal any more?  Is America going to order them to buy its coal?

Do Americans actually entertain the fantasy that the rest of the world is going to stop building all of these renewable energy power plants, and beg America for more coal and oil?  Don’t tell me!  Let me guess!  We don’t need uncomfortable truths!  Just tell us what we want to hear.

A Tale of 3 States

The state of Wyoming is sandwiched between the states of Idaho and South Dakota.  Now given this, you might expect that its sources of energy would be pretty similar to these other states, or perhaps something in between.  But the differences are striking.


South Dakota gets 94% of its power from renewable energy sources.  Most of this comes from the burning of biomass, but a large percentage (25%) comes from hydroelectric power.  Wind and geothermal are smaller contributors.  Idaho gets 100 PERCENT of its power from renewables.  Here, hydroelectric power is dominant, with biomass contributing most of the rest.  Again, wind and geothermal also contribute.

Now let’s look at Wyoming.  Wyoming gets…0.34% of its power from renewable sources.  Virtually no hydroelectric, virtually no biomass, virtually no wind power, virtually no geothermal.  This last is particularly ironic since Wyoming contains one of the most famous geothermal features in the world.


Why such a huge difference?  Well, let’s see….Wyoming is by far the biggest coal-producing state in the country.  40 PERCENT of the nation’s coal production comes out of Wyoming.  Gee, I wonder if the coal industry has an influence on Wyoming politics?  Hmmm…just a few weeks ago, a bill was introduced in Wyoming to FORBID utilities from using large scale wind or solar power.


Ironically, Wyoming does have some large wind farms, but exports much of that power to other states – Utah, Colorado, even Oregon!  The University of Wyoming’s Wind Research Center ranks Wyoming 7th in wind power potential.  The Solutions Project estimates that 65% of the state’s power needs could be provided by wind, and that’s without any biomass burning or nuclear power.

As I said, Wyoming has virtually no biomass or geothermal power plants either.  It’s all about coal, coal, coal.  The absurdity of Wyoming’s energy portfolio illustrates the degree to which a particular industry’s influence can interfere with good sense.  What does Wyoming think is going to happen as the rest of the country (and the world) moves to renewable energy and doesn’t need all that coal?  The price of coal will drop so low that it will no longer be economical to mine it.  The state’s economy, so dependent on coal, will collapse.


The same thing will happen to any state that depends too heavily on a particular energy source.  As the country and the world move away from that energy source, the price plummets.  Eventually it is no longer economical to produce that resource.

Wyoming is now in the absurd position of building wind farms to power people in other states.  Why isn’t it more economical for those states to buy coal from nearby coal-rich Wyoming and build coal-fired power plants?  Because once a wind farm is BUILT, it costs less to operate than a coal-fired power plant.  It’s much cheaper for Coloradans to use Wyoming wind power, already on line, than to build and operate new coal-fired power plants.


Meanwhile, Idaho and South Dakota are plugging along on renewables.  At present, corn is mostly used to produce ethanol in South Dakota.  But the truth is, any number of plants can be used for the purpose.  For the generation of electricity from renewables, South Dakota relies primarily on hydroelectric power, but wind power is also a major component and it’s growing in importance.

Hydroelectric power is the reason Idaho has one of the lowest average electricity rates in the country.  Damming rivers for power is of course an expensive proposition.  But once the dams are in place, operating them is relatively cheap.  Sound familiar?  This is exactly why wind and solar are cheaper in the long run than fossil fuels.

When state governments have to pass laws to forbid utilities from using renewable energy, you know something is fishy.  Renewable energy is the future, and no amount of political maneuvering is going to stop that.  I just wonder how many local economies are going to crash because some politicians are too cozy with some industries.


The Utter Nonsense Behind the Resistance to Renewable Energy

A few years ago, a group of researchers at Stanford and UC Berkeley seriously examined the prospects for freeing the country from fossil fuels.  Every single state.  The result of that effort is called The Solutions Project.  But I’ll come back to that.

Using something besides fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) for power – well, there a lot of possibilities.  One is nuclear power.  Fission reactors have been around for decades, and to this day they produce a lot of power in some areas.  Here is a map of currently operating fission power plants in America:


As you can see, most of them are in the East, particularly the Northeast.  Vermont gets 71% of its electricity from nuclear power!  Of course there are problems with fission reactors – they have been called “the most expensive way ever devised to boil water.”  The waste is potentially dangerous and long-lasting.  In their analysis, The Solutions Project doesn’t include fission power as an alternative to fossil fuels.

There is also fusion power, which has been in development for years.  It seems very likely that fusion will also be very expensive.  The Solutions Project doesn’t include fusion power as an alternative to fossil fuels.

What about hydroelectric power?  That’s been around for quite a while.  Yes, The Solutions Project does consider it.


As you can see, there is already quite a lot of hydroelectric power generation, especially in the southern Appalachians and the West Coast states.  In fact the state of Washington already gets 71% of its electricity from hydroelectric power.  No need to develop more there.  But many areas just aren’t conducive to hydroelectric.

When you say the word renewables, people often think of solar and wind.  Indeed, those 2 were examined by The Solutions Project.  Here is the resource available for photovoltaic power in America:


As you can see, solar potential is very much concentrated in the West, particularly the Southwest, although all parts of the country can make use of solar.  It should come as no surprise that the Southwest is where big solar power plants tend to be located.  Even so, there are some plants in the East.  Here are the photovoltaic projects in the country:


Now some people have argued that solar is not really viable because the sun isn’t out all of the time.  But of course that’s why you don’t go COMPLETELY solar.  Even in Arizona, which has tons of sunshine, The Solutions Project recommends only 73% of power generation from solar.  Some solar plants in California are producing so much excess power that they are trying to get people in other states to use some.

The other biggie in renewables is of course wind.  Here is how the wind resource is distributed in America:


Notice the huge wind potential in the Plains states.  Much of this area is rated as “excellent.”  But easily overlooked is offshore wind.  The offshore area of the Northeast is rated as “outstanding,” and almost all of the offshore area is rated excellent or better.  It should come as no surprise that wind power is being rapidly developed in the Plains:


Of course wind is criticized for the same reason as solar – the wind doesn’t always blow nice and hard.  But that’s why we don’t put all of our eggs in the wind basket either.  In Kansas, The Solutions Project recommends 70% of power generation from wind.

An often overlooked resource is geothermal power.  A map of geothermal potential in America might surprise you:


As you can see, there is an area in eastern Texas, southern Arkansas, and northern Louisiana that has strong potential.  But in fact, almost every part of the country has some potential.

Geothermal already provides 6% of California’s power.  Today, right now, geothermal is the fourth largest renewable source of power in America.  When people think of geothermal, they often think of geysers and hot springs.  But there are vast areas of underground heat available for power.  Simply by injecting water under pressure into these underground strata, that power can be tapped.  The rocks heat the water, which is pulled out through a second borehole and used to run a power generator.  The cool water is then returned to the first borehole.  Such systems are already being built and tested.

The Solutions Project examined solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, wave power, and tidal.  Their recommended energy mix for the country?  30.0% onshore wind, 19.1 percent offshore wind, 30.7 percent utility-scale photovoltaics, 7.2 percent rooftop photovoltaics, 7.3 percent concentrated solar power with storage, 1.25 percent geothermal power, 0.37 percent wave power, 0.14 percent tidal power, and 3.01 percent hydroelectric power.  In other words, about 50% wind, about 45% solar, and the rest other sources.  Of course each state has its own strengths, and each state would have its own unique mix.

The Solutions Project didn’t even consider biomass.  Biomass is often overlooked because it is so simple and straightforward.  Biomass simply refers to the burning of anything that grows, for power.  Humanity has been doing it for thousands of years.  You might think that burning stuff would be a global warming problem, but not as long as you GROW the stuff you burn.  When you grow it, you are pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  When you burn it, you merely put that carbon dioxide back.  As long as you grow what you burn, the process doesn’t add any carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

It hardly needs to be said that you can grow stuff almost everywhere.  Of course some areas are better suited than others – better soil, better rains, that sort of thing.  Here is a map of biomass resources in America:


The nice thing about this is that there is lots of potential in the East, while the greatest potential for solar and wind is in the West.  And sure enough, if we look at existing biomass plants, they are concentrated in the East:


The problem with biomass plants today is that many of them are focused on burning trees.  Trees take a while to grow.  They suck a lot of carbon dioxide out of the air in the process.  If you burn a tree, you put a lot of carbon dioxide back in the air, and it may take 40 years or more to grow another one that size.  If we want to avoid more global warming, we need to use plant material that can be grown, harvested, and burned within a short time.

In my home state of Louisiana, at least one biomass power plant uses rice hulls.  This is rather clever because the rice hulls are going to be there anyway in a heavy rice-growing area.  The hulls can either be thrown away – or they can be burned to produce power!

In many places, grasses can be grown and burned for power.  The nice thing about grass is that you can grow it almost anywhere that the soil is reasonably good and it’s not extremely dry.  You don’t have to irrigate it or fertilize it.  Switchgrass is an excellent choice.  You don’t have to weed it.  It is a weed!  Unlike commercial food crops, it has tremendous natural resistance to pests.


Not only can you grow it and burn it, you can use it to make liquid fuel.  Both methods are used to generate power.

Right now, today, at this moment, the state of Iowa gets 92 PERCENT of its power from renewables:  77% from biomass, 12% from wind, and 3% from hydroelectric.  Right now, today, at this moment, the state of Nevada gets 95 PERCENT of its power from renewables:  47% from hydroelectric, 36% from geothermal, 6% from solar, and 6% from biomass.  And the state of Delaware is now 100 PERCENT on renewables (mostly biomass).

So what’s the problem?  If states like Delaware, Iowa, and Nevada, 3 states with dramatically different renewable potentials, can get the vast majority of their power from renewables, why can’t we all do it?  Well, the truth is, states with high renewable percentages get most of that power from either biomass or hydroelectric.  But that’s changing.  Wind and solar are coming on strong.  In every part of the country, the intermittent nature of wind and solar can be backed up by hydroelectric, geothermal, or biomass, or a combination of these.

We don’t need nuclear plants.  We don’t need fossil fuels to generate electricity.  We can generate all the electricity we need from renewables.  We can produce liquid fuel from biomass.  Of course we will still need petroleum products to make plastics, and natural gas to make fertilizers.  But these are small portions of our current fossil fuel consumption.  We should be preserving our oil and natural gas reserves to take care of these needs.  To keep burning fossil fuels for power is absurd.

The Solutions Project shows us how to generate all of our electricity from renewables, using only current technology.  But they don’t even consider biomass, which is already producing lots of power.  The expansion of solar, wind, and geothermal, combined with biomass, will make the burning of fossil fuels for electricity obsolete.  Fission reactors will probably provide power to some areas for years to come, but it is highly unlikely that a significant number of new ones will be built.

Then there is the argument that renewables require “subsidies” to be viable.  As if the fossil fuel and nuclear industries haven’t been subsidized!  A 2011 study by Management Information Services found that over a 60-year period, from 1950 to 2010, the fossil fuel industry received 594 BILLION DOLLARS in subsidies, compared to subsidies to renewable energy (excluding nuclear) of 164 billion dollars.  In 2013, federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry were estimated at 3.2 billion dollars.  New energy technologies have always been subsidized.  The shale gas boom came about because of heavy government investment in the research and development of fracking technology.  Nuclear power has been around for 60 years, yet still gets more than a billion dollars in annual subsidies.

There is also the fact that energy efficiency will continue to increase.  To provide basic support for a human being only requires a certain amount of energy.  There is only so much energy needed to produce basic food, clothing, and shelter.  Despite technological advancements like computers and cell phones, America today consumes less energy per capita than it did in 1970.  Our 21st century televisions are a good example.  Many homes have 60-inch televisions that consume a fraction of the power of an old 24-inch CRT television.  Many cell phones, using miniscule amounts of power, can take high-definition video, better quality than that of a shoulder-mounted camcorder of 20 years ago, with a BATTERY many times heavier than a smart phone.


Resistance to renewables is nothing more nor less than an expression of the political influence of the fossil fuel industry.  If the CRT television industry had that much influence, most of us would still have power-hungry CRT televisions, while politicians constantly tried to persuade us that LCD/LED televisions were impractical and needed subsidies.  The arguments against any one renewable energy technology are ridiculous, because the whole point is to have a variety of technologies.  Renewables are coming.  The only question is much oil we will waste in the meantime, and how much we will unnecessarily warm our planet.




In a Nutshell

I don’t think I need to comment on this video.  It pretty well presents the basic problem of wealth inequality without any need for elaboration.

I’ll say it again – What, me worry?

Presidents in general tend to become less popular as their presidencies progress.  They are often pretty popular at the start, but the American people tend to grow sour on them.  Almost invariably, a given president reaches the point where a majority of Americans disapprove of their performance.  Here are some recent presidents, and how long it took their disapproval ratings to reach 51%:

Ronald Reagan – 2 years

George H.W. Bush – 3.7 years

Bill Clinton – 1.6 years

George W. Bush – 3.3 years

Barack Obama – 2.6 years

And our new president, Mr. GTP?  Well, uh…



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