Saturday :: Nov 26, 2005

Too Cool! We'll All Glow In The Dark!

by pessimist

Energy prices take a big bite

Energy prices, which have been rising steadily for the past several years, soared after Hurricane Katrina, with gasoline prices reaching more than $3 a gallon and oil trading for close to $70 a barrel. Though prices are off their recent highs, the Energy Information Administration says diesel prices are up 40% from a year ago, while gasoline prices are up 25%.
the full brunt of higher energy prices won't be felt until this winter, when consumers are expected to face sharply higher bills — 30% to 40% more or higher — for heating oil and natural gas.

This problem isn't just facing Americans - it's the true globalization:

Winter, High Oil Costs Cause Global Chills

Heating oil and other energy prices are up to 40 percent higher than three years ago. That translates into bad news for Northern Hemisphere consumers whose budget is already stretched by a summer of high prices at the gasoline pumps — and into opportunities for those who cash in on the cold.

Long underwear in South Korea, extra sweaters in U.S. classrooms, rising sales of wood-burning stoves in Denmark. Winter is here, and because of a spike in heating costs, people from Tokyo to Toledo are looking for alternatives to oil.

Energy costs are grist for publicity stunts, such as the one at a Tokyo fashion show that featured the "Warm-Biz Bra", complete with reheatable gel pads and a sensor that flashes and buzzes if the room temperature goes above 68 Fahrenheit. Triumph International, the European lingerie company that created the bra, has no plans to market it.

In South Korea, where a vigorous save-energy campaign is under way, the clothing industry expects a 10 percent rise in profits from sales of warm apparel. The South Korean government is urging people to wear long underwear and is running a campaign called Nan 2018 — the Korean word for "I am" that is also the Chinese character meaning warmth. 2018 refers to the goal of setting thermostats between 64 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit (18-20 degrees Celcius).

Henrik Sloth, who sells wood-burning stoves and fireplaces in Roskilde, also west of the Danish capital, says sales are "smoking hot." And Denise Henry, whose family deals in firewood in France's Bourgogne region, says "the phone is ringing off the hook."

The high-tech heating industry in Austria also has benefited. One company, EVN Fernheizwerk, recently hosted a Japanese delegation that had brought with it tons of wood waste by ship and rail, and said the visitors were impressed that so much energy could be produced from what is normally thrown away in Japan.

But not only manufacturers see an opportunity.

"We have seen a lot of thefts of heating oil ... stolen from private properties and construction sites," says Peter Josephsen, a police officer in Ringkoebing, 140 miles west of Copenhagen.
In Germany, unusually warm weather had been leaving some people cold. The country's petroleum marketing board estimated a few weeks ago that household heating oil tanks were only about 60 percent full, with customers apparently waiting for prices to fall. Germans can even sign up to receive text-messaged tips on where to buy bargain-price oil.
The Legitimate Coverup
In the United States, some school districts have written to parents asking them to dress their children in an extra sweaters to compensate for lowered thermostats in classrooms. "We are asking kids to layer, to bring in a sweatshirt in case you get a colder room," said Beth Wagger, spokeswoman for Fairfield City Schools in southwest Ohio's Butler County. Similar letters went home in New York state school districts, where increased energy prices are translating into a projected budget shortfall of some $96 million.
International Ingenuity
In some Asian regions, many turn to traditional solutions. Nazi Balla, who sells roasted chestnuts on the streets of Srinagar in Kashmir, swears by his "kangri" — a clay pot filled with glowing embers — which he carries under his woolen tunic. "It's economic and portable," he says.

Three thousand miles west, in Tirana, Albania, another chestnut seller rubs her hands against the cold and says she's praying for a mild winter. "If I get cold," says Naime Hoti, "I can only wear more and more clothes." Because of increased demand for electricity, the main mode of heating, much of Albania is suffering long daily brownouts.

Across The Frozen Pond
Britain's Energywatch, a gas and electricity consumer watchdog, estimates that around 2 million Britons will be in "fuel poverty" this winter, meaning they will spend more than 10 percent of their income on heating bills. Among them is Vicki Fearn, an unemployed mother of a 13-year old daughter living in government-subsidized housing in London. "It's going to be tough winter when the money runs out. I will be sitting on the sofa shivering under three duvets," she says.
"And there's nothing you can do about it; you can either go without food or without heating."

It may be that decades of prosperity has spoiled us, as the reports indicate that the Western nations are feeling this high energy cost more than the other areas of the world:

Early Winter Brings Chaos to Europe

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - An early winter cold spell brought heavy snowfall to parts of Europe over the weekend, paralyzing public transport and roadways, toppling trees and cutting electricity to tens of thousands of households.

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower closed to the public for four hours after a morning snowfall made it too slippery to climb.

In the Netherlands, high winds and sudden freezing temperatures caused havoc on the national rail and road networks. Hundreds of stranded Dutch commuters spent Friday night in temporary Red Cross shelters at train stations, theaters and more than a dozen other locations.

With more than an inch of snow falling per hour and winds up to 100 mph sweeping in off the North Sea, road traffic officials reported the worst gridlock in the country's history, with hundreds more people sleeping in their cars after waiting up to 10 hours alongside highways.

In Britain, 500 vehicles were stranded by snow storms on a remote moor in southwest England, police said. Devon and Cornwall police said rescuers in four-wheel drive vehicles were gradually evacuating people from a closed road.

Both Belgium and the Czech Republic reported car crash deaths.

But it wasn't all bad for everyone. As the exhausted expression goes, there was a silver lining:

For some, the chilling winds brought an early winter treat as ski slopes opened in the Belgian Ardennes region and hilly central Germany. Ski slopes in Belgium and Germany opened early after as much as 8 inches of snow fell overnight into Saturday in some countries.

Personally, the cold can stay outside while I get toasty by the fire. The only issue - what to burn?

There is always Celtic Coal:

Warm glow of Irish peat takes edge off oil woes

KNOCKVICAR (Reuters) - As an autumn gale assails his hilltop cottage, Pepijn Martius sits beside a peat-fired stove, savoring the earthy smell and glowing warmth that has cost him little more than a sore back. "And it keeps me warm twice," he adds, referring to the physical labor involved in harvesting the dark, carbon-rich earth which is the first stage in the formation of coal.

"For my pocket it's much better," said the 27-year-old Dutchman. "If I would heat with oil or gas I would spend probably quadruple the amount of money that I spend on peat." Irish-born Martius reckons 150 euros buys enough peat to run his central heating and provide hot water for a year -- a fraction of Ireland's average annual domestic gas bill which, after a recent 25 percent price hike, is set to hit 946 euros.

Peat has been used for fuel since prehistoric times but it wasn't until the 18th century that deforestation, spurred by British shipbuilding, made it Ireland's major source of fuel. By the 1840s, when the Great Famine killed an estimated 1 million people, peat was often the only source of heat.

John P. Flanagan, 80, is one of thousands of workers who spent World War Two, or "The Emergency" as it is known in Ireland, digging peat by hand to keep trains running and bakers' ovens alight after coal imports dried up. "There'd be 40 men working on this bank here and another 30 ... over there," he says, pointing across the deserted field...


In the nearby midland town of Lanesborough sits a more modern manifestation of peat's significance and of a postwar policy to reduce Ireland's dependence on imported energy. Opened in 2004, the 100-megawatt Lough Ree power station is one of two new peat-fired plants belonging to the state-owned Electricity Supply Board (ESB), which has been generating power from peat since the 1950s. "Strategically, of course, they worked out very well and the 1970s proved that with the oil crisis when peat power stations came into their own," said station manager Pat Treanor.

A 15-year contract with state peat producer Bord Na Mona that caps price rises gives ESB customers some protection from oil prices that have roughly doubled since 2003. From the roof of Lough Ree it's easy to see why there's little chance of a breakdown in the supply chain that feeds its furnaces with 800,000 tons of peat annually. No pipelines or oil tankers, just a small train ferrying fuel from the bogs.

Getting Bogged Down

For environmentalists, it's too little, too late. "Bogs are a huge store of carbon dioxide so if you do start cutting and burning them you're actually releasing a lot of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere," says Caroline Hurley of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC). The bogs also provide a haven for vulnerable birds, particularly waders and ground nesters like the golden plover and red grouse, and to plants like butterworts and bladderworts which have adapted to the poor soil by becoming carnivores.

But peat's economic importance to the traditionally depressed midlands means Hurley faces an uphill battle: "I don't think people are worried about burning peat to be honest ... they are only too happy to use a cheaper substitute."

Given that Ireland is 17 percent bog land -- a proportion only exceeded by Finland, Canada and Indonesia -- it is not easy to persuade small-scale farmers of the environmental urgency. "I depend on it at certain times of the year when there isn't any other income," says bog owner Jimmy McLoughlin. Or, in the words of one Irish proverb: "He who has water and peat on his own farm has the world his own way."

Naturally, this only exposes the surface of the issue:

A big chill will heat up energy debate

Thirty years ago, Greens used to argue that we were running out of fossil fuels, and especially the most convenient of them, oil (coal was and is inconveniently common and gas wasn't much spoken of).

Now, we are learning to dread energy insecurity and high prices arising from a chaotic world in which we hardly know whether we have more to fear from over-mighty states (Russia), or wobbly or wicked ones (you name your own favourite handful in Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East). In the case of gas, even the EU is against us. Out in the wider world, energy demand is soaring in countries that are doing the energy-hungry metal-melting we are too fastidious for. Suddenly, our gas-guzzling looks a bad idea.

So maybe the Greens were right? And if so, should we be listening to them today?

Actually, the present great cause, global warming, is coming under rather sceptical scrutiny. However, it doesn't take a climate change sceptic to see that Hurricane Katrina may yet turn out to be the key to how things unfold. For Katrina showed how fragile oil supplies can be.

Whether we fear the climate or foreigners, it looks very likely that some big money and effort will soon have to be expended on securing our energy supplies. Conservation and renewables may look comparatively attractive, which will please the Greens.

But they will kick up a tremendous fuss about one important option: nuclear power. Tony Blair has pretty obviously become a convert. David King, his climate alarmist-in-chief, is certainly keen. The Prime Minister is apparently about to order a nuclear review, presumably to overturn the prevarication of the last one he ordered, in 2002.

The more idealist greens hate being reminded that voters want more of everything and may well tolerate nuclear power as part of the mix. Still, the great news from the past few days is that discussion of energy looks like becoming vigorous and informed by a properly hard-nosed assessment of the risks of doing nothing, or doing the wrong thing. As they discuss what kind they should opt for, ministers should realise that voters only like policies which are cheap, convenient - and of obvious benefit to themselves. Energy insecurity is more likely to motivate them than climate change.

But nuclear also offends libertarians of another sort: it is a technology that requires very large state support. It requires big subsidies, and a significant security presence.

It is this sort of material that someone like accused terrorist Jose Padilla would need to make an effective dirty bomb. It would be easier for someone like him interested in such a device to acquire the necessary material from a locality which isn't interested in having the nasty stuff in the first place, no matter what assurances are being offered. Isn't it bad enough that security measures are in need of improvement at all of the over 100 existing US nuclear plants? They are easy pickings for terrorists, especially if they attack from the air with a hijacked airliner or other large aircraft.

"It is just outrageous," aid Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap nuclear watch dog group and former director of the Program on Nuclear Safety at the University of Santa Cruz.
"They are leaving the reactors vulnerable. These are in-place nuclear weapons. If a plane were to attack a reactor there is nothing to protect them. There is no protection. The plants are just completely vulnerable to air attack."

But it's an uphill fight, as it is easier to discuss the operational costs of a nuclear power plant while ignoring the longer-term expenses of storing the spent - if still incredibly dangerous - fuel rods. They have to be protected against terrorist theft, which requires knowing exactly how many there are and WHERE they are at all times - something that seems not to be very important to plant operators.

But who is going to care about this little faux pas? It's not so little - it's how North Korea got the material for their small and growing nuclear arsenal.

Senator Pat Leahy is calling for tighter controls, but will he also include oversight on issues of transporting such dangerous materials?

So far no - and it IS an issue. There are transportation standards, but they don't cover everything. There is only one place designated in the entire nation for nuclear waste storage - Yucca Mountain, Nevada - so all the spent rods have to be shipped across the nation to that site from the 100+ nuclear power plants. And there are so very many of these. The San Onofre power plant (Richard Nixon's immediate San Clemente neighbor, by the way) still has every fuel rod it ever used stored in water tanks at the facility.

Murphy's Law tells us that there will be accidents from time to time even under the best of conditions. Even if special trains were to be built, the track underneath them is not going to be improved. It would cost far too much, and might require that the Topper$ surrender a tax cut or two.

In Britain, the five-year projection for rail improvements is £35 billion (roughly $60 billion as of post time) - and Britain's rail network is so much smaller than that of the US. (I'd give the estimate for US improvements, but that seems to be a secret!) And no matter how many safety features one builds into any system, there is always the factor of human error in every accident.

Maybe the Indians have the right idea, if we have to have nuclear power plants at all. They plan on using thorium to power their reactors. The good news is that the Thorium isotope needed (thorium-233) has a half-life of about 22 minutes, and breaks down into protactinium-233, which has a half-life of about 27 days. Thus, it would only take about 5 months before the citizens of a town could safely return to their homes after a rail or truck accident, provided we ignore that the decay product of protactinium-233 - uranium-233 - has a half-life of 160,000 years. That is an improvement of orders of magnitude from the half-life of Uranium-235 (700 million years), but not as short as the most-toxic substance on Earth - Plutonium-239 (24,000 years).

I could go on and on, but I'm sure I've lost most of you already. Suffice it to say that our elected officials are 'dealing' with the problem - even the nuclear ones:

Democrats call for policy to address high fuel costs

OLYMPIA, Washington (AP) -- The federal government needs to create a comprehensive energy policy to address rising costs across the country, Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington said Saturday in the Democratic Party's weekly radio address.

Gregoire cited actions taken by her state and Democratic governors in New Mexico and Pennsylvania to help people dealing with the record cost of heating their homes. "We're controlling rising prices and reducing our use of foreign oil by embracing alternative energy sources," she said.

But to keep pace with the energy demand, she said a comprehensive policy, with commitments from the states and federal government, is essential. "Sadly, we simply can't rely on the Republican-controlled Congress to create a national energy policy that works," she said.

Gregoire also addressed a home-state issue, criticizing President Bush and Congress for recent budget cuts for a waste treatment plant at the Hanford nuclear reservation, one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the nation. "The cleanup is the largest in the nation and essential to protecting the environment and economy of the Northwest," she said.

So you want nukes? Count me out. I'd rather be living in the cold darkness, thank you. Real men can handle that. We're not afraid of the dark and don't need night lights. We know that there is no boogie-terrist under the bed!

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