Business & Technology

Tempest in a stock pot

White House chefs and the limits of personal choice

About a month ago, high-profile foodies got pretty amped up about whom Obama would choose as White House chef. Three of them -- Berkeley sustainable food doyenne Alice Waters, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, and New York City restaurateur Denny Mayer -- even got together to pen a letter urging the incoming president to replace the current White House chef with someone who chooses locally grown, organic food -- preferably sourced from an on-site vegetable garden. According to a New York Times account, the letter states: A person of integrity who is devoted to the ideals of sustainability and health would send a powerful message that food choices matter. Supporting seasonal, ripe delicious American food would not only nourish your family, it would support our farmers, inspire your guests, and energize the nation. Last week, Obama defied this gentle effort to convince him to send the incumbent chef packing. Cristeta Comerford, who has been in charge of cooking first-family meals for the Bushes since 2005, will retain her post, the Obama team announced. My first reaction to this news was disappointment. After choosing an agribiz-friendly pol as USDA chief, couldn't Obama at least make a symbolic nod in the direction of the sustainable-food movement by picking a new chef? Now I'm not sure what the fuss was about in the first place.

China's BYD to bring plug-in hybrid, electric cars to U.S. in 2011

DETROIT, Michigan, Jan. 12, 2009 (AFP) — China’s BYD Auto announced plans Monday to enter the U.S. market in 2011 with a range of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. It would likely be the first Chinese automaker to enter the highly-competitive U.S. market and beat many established automakers in offering an extended-range electric vehicle to U.S. consumers. General Motors, Chrysler, and Nissan are expected to be the first to introduce electric cars in small quantities to the United States in 2010. Toyota expects to introduce a plug-in hybrid at the end of this year and a two-seater electric car in …

Coal-fired power: Still expensive

Another rate increase in the name of cheap coal

Duke Energy just got approval to raise rates 18 percent to cover the continued rising price tag for its 630-MW planned coal plant in southwestern Indiana. The new price tag? $2.35 billion, or $3,730/kW. By my highly unscientific but quixotically regular analysis, that's a new record, just topping AEP's $3,700/kW proposed facility in Virginia. Way to go, Duke! One note: This plant will not sequester its CO2, and $2.35 billion does not represent the full cost being borne by Indiana ratepayers: On Wednesday, the commission also approved Duke Energy's $17 million plan to study the plant's potential to capture a portion of its carbon dioxide emissions as part of the company's proposal to possibly store the gas permanently deep underground. So not only is it expensive, but it's also environmentally dangerous. But if we throw a few million ratepayer dollars at "studying" CO2 sequestration, maybe we can put a nice report together showing that someday in the future, it will only be expensive. This apparently was insufficient to appease the environmental community: Environmental and government watchdog groups oppose the plant and have sued to try to halt it, calling the project a huge waste of money that would be better spent on renewable energy such as wind farms. They also warn that its price tag could go even higher if Congress acts to impose caps on carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming. Crazy hippies. When will they learn? We need to burn more coal and raise power prices because coal is cheap. Why is that so hard to understand?

Greenpeace grades gadgets unveiled at CES

LAS VEGAS — Consumer electronics manufacturers are making greener products than a year ago but more progress needs to be made before they can claim a truly environmentally friendly product, Greenpeace said Friday. In its second greener products survey, “Green Electronics: The Search Continues,” the environmental activist group assessed the progress made by consumer electronic companies in greening their products over the past year. The Greenpeace survey was released at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where manufacturers have been seeking to outdo one another this year in touting how green their products are. The CES organizers …

Nuclear cost study, part 3

Responding to Heritage's staggeringly confused 'rebuttal'

Part 1 presented a new study by power plant cost expert Craig Severance that puts the generation costs for power from new nuclear plants at from 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour -- triple current U.S. electricity rates! Those ideologically promiscuous folks at the Heritage Foundation have replied with "New Study on Staggering Cost of Nuclear Energy, Staggeringly Pessimistic." Craig's point by point response follows a few of my comments. Heritage is a leader of the conservative movement stagnation. They have written "the only thing a green 'New Deal' will do is lead us down a Green Road to Serfdom," comparing such a policy to "collectivism in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany," and their Senior Policy Analyst in Energy Economics and Climate Change is quite confused about both of the subjects he analyzes. The key paragraph in Heritage's new critique is:

Nuclear warning to taxpayers, investors, part 2

Nukes may become troubled assets, ruin credit ratings

Part 1 presented a new study that puts the generation costs for power from new nuclear plants at from 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour -- triple current U.S. electricity rates! Nuclear plants with such incredibly expensive electricity and "out of control" capital costs, as Time put it, obviously create large risks for utilities, their investors, and, ultimately taxpayers. Congress extended huge loan guarantees to new nukes in 2005, and the American people will be stuck with another huge bill if those plants join the growing rank of troubled assets. The risk to utilities who start down the new nuke path is also great. A June 2008 report [PDF] by Moody's Investor Services Global Credit Research, "New Nuclear Generating Capacity: Potential Credit Implications for U.S. Investor Owned Utilities" (PR here [PDF]), warned that "nuclear plant construction poses risks to credit metrics, ratings," concluding: The cost and complexity of building a new nuclear power plant could weaken the credit metrics of an electric utility and potentially pressure its credit ratings several years into the project, according to a new report from Moody's Investors Service ... Moody's suggests that a utility that builds a new nuclear power plant may experience an approximately 25% to 30% deterioration in cash-flow-related credit metrics. And this would likely result in a sharp downgrading of the utility's credit rating. The application by Florida Power & Light for a large nuclear plant came in at a stunning $12 to $18 billion, and the utility concedes that new reactors present "unique risks and uncertainties," with "every six-month delay adding as much as $500 million in interest costs." The report Climate Progress published this week, Business Risks and Costs of New Nuclear Power [PDF] by power-plant cost expert Craig Severance, has an extended discussion of the business risks to utilities and hence investors:

VRB Power files for bankruptcy

VRB's long-life flow battery was a reliable electricity storage alternative for renewable energy

VRB Power applied for insolvency in November [PDF]. A combination of a bad economy and a product that was more suited for future markets than today's electricity generators dealt VRB the final blow. This is bad news for the green energy community. VRB built flow batteries -- utility scale batteries that could last for over 10,000 full charges and discharges. Cost was from $650 per kWh for small-scale systems to as a little as $300 per kWh for large-scale systems. Admittedly the latter price was for larger systems than anyone ever ordered. It was the perfect utility-scale battery: too heavy for automobile use, but rugged and tolerant of cold, heat, and shocks. It required minimal operations and maintenance. Even at current costs, these flow batteries could have played a key role in an energy grid based on variable sources. In today's world, it found a niche market at UPS for remote systems where maintenance was difficult, and for telecom use. Unfortunately its greater reliability could not make up for its higher cost. It was an excellent product, unfortunately mostly suited to a electric system that does not yet exist. We can only hope the battery does not end up in patent hell -- owned by somebody who neither licenses it nor develops it themselves.

Bailing out Bidder 70

Tim DeChristopher and Utah stand up to Big Oil

I've never been big on rules. Neither, apparently, is Tim DeChristopher. He's the young activist who just completely derailed the Bush administration's plans to sell more of our public lands to the oil companies. He sat in the lease sale in Salt Lake City on Dec. 19 and "bought" 22,500 acres of public lands right out from under the suits from Chevron and Exxon. One small problem -- Tim doesn't actually have the money. It almost doesn't matter, though, because he's monkeywrenched the process so thoroughly that they won't be able to conduct another sale until after the Obama administration takes over -- and thus hopefully never. Tim needs to raise $45,000 by this Friday, Jan. 9, in order to avoid fraud charges and put the sale out of reach to the Bush administration and their oily friends. He's already raised almost half. I, for one, will be supporting Tim DeChristoper, Bidder 70, with a tax-deductible contribution via the Center for Water Advocacy in Moab, Utah. He deserves thanks for reminding all of us that direct action still gets the goods!

The market myth

Wherein I ramble on about markets and regulations

If I could persuade everyone in America to read a single paragraph, it would be the second 'graph in Dean Baker's new piece in the Boston Review: "Free Market Myth." Here it is: In general, political debates over regulation have been wrongly cast as disputes over the extent of regulation, with conservatives assumed to prefer less regulation, while liberals prefer more. In fact conservatives do not necessarily desire less regulation, nor do liberals necessarily desire more. Conservatives support regulatory structures that cause income to flow upward, while liberals support regulatory structures that promote equality. "Less" regulation does not imply greater inequality, nor is the reverse true. God yes! As Baker points out, this kind of framing puts conservatives at a huge advantage. Americans are suspicious of the vicissitudes of capitalism, but they're even more skeptical about the competence of government. If you can claim you're arguing for "less government intrusion," you've got a big head start. Even more irksome to me is the extent to which progressives and environmentalists cede this framing to conservatives -- indeed, help reinforce it! I can't count how many times I've heard people on this site and elsewhere railing against the "free market" and how it's brought the world to the brink of ruin. Argh. The problem not some inherent moral valence of markets -- no such thing -- but the actual practices of actual people who structure markets to benefit those with power at the expense of those without (and those yet unborn). There are no unstructured ("free") markets. The very term "free market" embeds the myth of a Platonic market free of government involvement. (It's a species of the "noble savage" myth -- the noble market.) But there is not and could be no such thing. Markets are human institutions created by human decisions and maintained by collectively agreed-upon frameworks.