Paul Birkeland

Paul Birkeland

Posts by This Writer

9 years 7 months ago

Energy and Emissions (and a lot of other) legislation is pretty nearly at a stand still in the US Senate. Very little makes it out of that august chamber. And what DOES make it out is so watered down that the ducks at the nearest reservoir have to walk to dinner each time something passes.

As critical as energy and emissions are, this is more than just a legislative problem. A Congress that can't act invites ridicule and mistrust. Over just a few years, mistrust becomes a corrosive cynicism that threatens our very democracy. You can see that even now. And Senate...


9 years 7 months ago

The New York Times ran a piece recently asking if the solution to America’s nuclear waste problem was in France. France has a state of the art nuclear waste processing facility in La Hague. To quote the Times:

“Old nuclear fuel assemblies -- highly radioactive, elongated packages of metal rods that once energized some of France's 58 nuclear power plants -- are gripped by large mechanical arms. They are hoisted by cranes and placed on belts that move them along in the dim orange light. The machinery works to prepare the assemblies to be lowered into four giant pools.

There they...


9 years 7 months ago

When my wife and I got married, we planned a wedding where the guests prepared the feast – barbecuing the salmon, churning the ice cream, making the salad. It was dictated more by economic considerations than anything else. But the result was educational. Even today (26 years later) people will tell us it was the best and most memorable wedding they had been to. What is it they remember? They remember being a community. Somehow working together on such an important project bound the whole event in a fast-forming, but humanly gratifying, community.

Renewable energy systems can be...


9 years 8 months ago

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is a US Government agency responsible for selling the electricity generated by the monstrous dams on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. By and large it goes to publicly owned utilities. Excess is sold to commercial utilities. But this spring was a little different. The BPA was so flush with power this past spring that it literally gave power away to its public utility customers. The reason for this provides good insight into the challenges we face in making the transition to renewable energy systems, and where our investment should be (rather than...


9 years 8 months ago

When a breach in an earthen dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's power plant 40 miles west of Knoxville sent over 5 million cubic yards of toxic coal-ash slurry into the Emory River in December 2008, a good deal of the nation was introduced to the “other carbon emission.” But in small towns around the nation, this “carbon emission” had been on their minds for some time. Colstrip, MT is one of those towns.

Seattle’s Sightline Institute reported on an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity that determined that waste ponds at a massive...


9 years 8 months ago

When energy and emissions legislation reaches the Senate floor – and I’m not holding my breath here – it may or may not have a cap on carbon emissions, i.e. it may or may not include the single most effective mechanism identified by economists to reduce our carbon emissions. As stunning as this is, we must also contend with the realization that it will almost certainly contain a $2 billion fool’s bet. That’s how much is in there to incentivize carbon emissions capture and sequestration. This is on top of $2.4 billion in the 2009...


9 years 8 months ago

There’s a lot of excitement about biofuels. And rightfully so. As I’ve written before, biofuels will be an integral part of our energy infrastructure as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels. But we also need to keep in mind that biofuels will not be a panacea, allowing us to just keep living as we are. Biofuels will fill niche applications that they are well-suited to serve. The sooner we realize this, the more effectively we can grow the biofuels industries we will need.

I wrote earlier about biodiesel, one particular biofuel, and the lowering of expectations for its...


9 years 8 months ago

The Deepwater Horizon disaster reignited an ethical quandary of mine. Namely, is it okay to buy oil? I’m not talking about buying oil for home heating or gasoline for the car. I’m talking about oil as an investment.

A few years ago, some Wall Street investment houses created vehicles called Exchange Traded Funds, or ETFs. They were basically a way to buy various real physical materials – commodities if you will - through the stock market. Gold, copper, oil, silver, all sorts of commodities became available for purchase and sale the same way you’...


9 years 8 months ago

When the Federal Government shut down all deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico a few weeks ago, there was little argument that it wasn’t justified. I thought this was hopeful. Really, I’ll take progress where I can get it.

But there was some tsk-tsking from the shore side petroleum industry – the machine shops, the parts warehousers, the solvent and lubricant suppliers, the food servicers, and more – that should this moratorium last very long, it would compound the economic damage to the region. And I have to say that, inept oil companies and regressive State governments aside...


9 years 8 months ago

We’re talking about Strategic Energy Management Systems, but I want to get a word in here about choosing your energy projects before we get back to talking about your people.

Energy projects come in four flavors, and you should take them in order because there is generally more payback to the less complex projects. We all think about putting solar panels everywhere, and maybe wind turbines, and maybe even how we can capture some of the heat we send down the drain with the wash water. But reality’s a little different. Here are the categories of upgrades you should consider in priority...


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