David Morris

David Morris has been a consultant or adviser to the energy departments of Presidents Ford, Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush. For six years, David served on a congressionally created advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Energy and USDA on biomass-related issues. David is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs the Institute's New Rules Project.

New Cantwell climate bill is simpler and more equitable

Cross-posted from AlterNet. On Sept. 22, in a speech to 100 world leaders gathered at the United Nations to discuss climate change, President Barack Obama …

Why does the much-touted climate bill look like it was stolen from the Republican playbook?

“Command and control” is a military term the Republicans long ago appropriated to caricature and condemn Democratic programs. Republicans like to contrast the Democrats’ embrace …

Grids and grids

A smart grid, yes. A new national grid, no.

The new mantra in energy circles is "national smart grid." In the New York Times, Al Gore insists the new president should give the highest priority to "the planning and construction of a unified national smart grid." President Barack Obama, responding to a question by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, declares that one of "the most important infrastructure projects that we need is a whole new electricity grid ... a smart grid." We lump together the two words, "national" and "smart" as if they were joined at the hip, but in fact each describes and enables a very different electricity future. The word "national" in these discussions refers to the construction of tens of thousands of miles of new national ultra-high-voltage transmission lines, an initiative that would further separate power plants from consumers, and those who make the electricity decisions from those who feel the impact of those decisions. The word "smart," on the other hand, refers to upgrading the existing network to make it more resilient and efficient. A smart grid can decentralize both generation and authority. Sophisticated electronic sensors, wireless communication, software and ever-more powerful computers will connect electricity customers and suppliers in real time, making possible a future in which tens of millions of households and businesses actively interact with the electricity network as both consumers and producers. Advocates of a new national ultra-high-voltage transmission network offer three main arguments: 1. New high-voltage transmission lines are needed to decrease electric grid congestion and therefore increase reliability and security. There is indeed congestion on some parts of our distribution and transmission networks. Congestion reveals a problem; it doesn't demand a specific solution. It can be addressed by reducing demand through increasing energy efficiency or by increasing on-site or local energy production. Both strategies are often less costly and quicker to implement than building new transmission lines. An analogy from the solid-waste sector may be appropriate. Exhausting nearby landfills does not inevitably require us to send our garbage to new and more distant landfills. We can emphasize recycling, composting, scrap-based manufacturing and reuse. 2. A new national high-voltage transmission network is necessary to dramatically increase renewable energy. President Obama wants to build new transmission lines because, "I want to be able to get wind power from North Dakota to population centers, like Chicago." Writing in Vanity Fair, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wants a new high-voltage transmission system to "deliver solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy across the country." But do we really need to deliver renewable energy across the country? The distinguishing characteristic of renewable energy is its availability in abundant quantities virtually everywhere.

Democratic energy

Memo to President-elect Barack Obama on democratizing the energy system

Dear President-elect Obama, Congratulations on your historic election. Now the truly heavy lifting begins. You have declared your intention to make "a new energy economy" …

Is eating local the best choice?

Strengthening community is an important benefit of eating locally

The following is a guest essay originally posted at AlterNet by David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Some 30 years ago NASA came up with another big idea: assemble vast solar electric arrays in space and beam the energy to earth. The environmental community did not dismiss NASA's vision out of hand. After all, the sun shines 24 hours a day in space. A solar cell on earth harnesses only about four hours equivalent of full sunshine a day. If renewable electricity could be generated more cheaply in space than on earth, what's the problem? A number of us argued that the problem was inherent in the scale of the power plant. Whereas rooftop solar turns us into producers, builds our self-confidence, and strengthens our sense of community as we trade electricity back and forth with our neighbors, space-based solar arrays aggravate our dependence. By dramatically increasing the distance between us and a product essential to our survival, we become more insecure. The scale of the technology requires a global corporation, increasing the distance between those who make the decisions and those who feel the impact of those decisions. Which, in turn, demands a global oversight body, itself remote and nontransparent to electric consumers.

Give ethanol a chance: The case for corn-based fuel

With the right rules in place, it could work

Working Assets is my long-distance phone company. I love it dearly for its combination of business efficiency, social responsibility and progressive politics. Each month, my phone bill carries alerts that urge me to take action on a specific issue or two. Recent Citizen Actions suggest the gravity of the issues chosen: "Save Our Constitution," "Impeach Dick Cheney," "Close Guantanamo." This month Working Assets urged me to "Say No to Ethanol." How did the use of ethanol end up alongside tyranny and torture as an evil to be conquered? A couple of years ago, I was waiting my turn to speak to a well-attended California conference on alternative fuels. For this gathering, alternative fuels included natural gas, clean diesel, fossil fueled derived hydrogen, coal-fired electricity, as well as wind energy and biofuels. The leadoff speaker, from the California Energy Commission, spoke warmly about all the alternative fuels under discussion. Except one. When it came to ethanol, he visualized his perspective with the metaphor of a giant hypodermic needle from Midwest corn farmers to California drivers. For him and, I suspect, most of California's state government, ethanol belongs in the same category as heroin. In the late 1990s, the nation discovered that MTBE, a widely used gasoline additive made of natural gas and petroleum-derived isobutylene was polluting ground water. The environmental community largely defended its continued use and vigorously opposed substituting ethanol. One well-respected New England environmental coalition raised the possibility that ethanol blends could cause fetal alcohol syndrome. Fill up your gas tank with 10 percent ethanol and your baby could be alcoholic, their report warned. In the last few years, the environmental position has shifted from an attack on ethanol from any source to an attack on corn and corn-derived ethanol. The assault on corn comes from so many directions that sometimes the arguments are wildly contradictory. In an article published in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year Michael Pollan, an excellent and insightful writer, argues that cheap corn is the key to the epidemic of obesity. The same month, Foreign Affairs published an article by two distinguished university professors who argued that the use of ethanol has led to a runup in corn prices that threatens to sentence millions more to starvation. Ethanol is not a perfect fuel. Corn is far from a perfect fuel crop. We should debate their imperfections. But we should also keep in mind the first law of ecology. "There is no such thing as a free lunch." Tapping into any energy source involves tradeoffs. Yet when it comes to ethanol, and corn, we accept no tradeoffs. In 30 years in the business of alternative energy, I've never encountered the level of animosity generated by ethanol, not even in the debate about nuclear power. When it comes to ethanol, we seem to apply a different standard than we do when we evaluate other fuels.

Toward a community-owned, decentralized biofuel future

President Bush visits the Virginia Biodiesel Refinery in 2005. Photo: whitehouse.gov Biofuels won’t single-handedly solve the climate crisis, nor will they deliver energy independence. But …