Friday, March 14, 2008

Is it all a wash?

We've been blogging about the political candidates and their energy platforms, with particular emphasis on senators Clinton and Obama who are still the neck and neck candidates fighting for the Democratic Party's nomination. Both Clinton and Obama's energy platforms are very ambitious, with focuses on implementation of GHG cap and trade, raising automotive fuel economies by 2020, a $150B push into biofuel and renewables infrastructure, and other large scale programs that have been well described in earlier blog posts. I'm really wondering however, if looking at their long-term energy initiatives isn't just a complete waste of our time.

I worked this past summer for a large energy company that builds coal and nuclear power plants as well as wind turbines. Many of the projects I saw come through during my time there were very large scale, with capex in the billions and overall lead times from initial bid engineering to breaking first ground being years, some being over a decade. I was somewhat vexed when I'd heard this, because engineers generally stay in the same project for a year or two then gradually move on to other undertakings. I couldn't understand how anyone could possibly have any system design ownership if the project time was so long and an individual engineer's time on the project so short. I asked one of the more seasoned engineers in my team about this one day in private, and he confirmed my suspicions; any given component will usually cycle through multiple lead designers throughout the project lifetime. While there aren't usually dramatic failures in overall system design, there are almost always innumerable unexplainable points of inefficiency and redundancy that are unavoidable when no one group leads a design from start to finish. The subsequent effect is an inherent lack of accountability in the system- if Engineer F is the person responsible for a component and it has problems during final design, F can easily blame Engineer E for handing off a muddled design. E naturally blames D and soforth, with A ultimately having no idea what anyone is talking about, as he hasn't worked on that project in years, and the part looked completely different when he designed it.

For those still reading, I see the new energy campaigns in much the same way. The cap and trade systems espoused by Clinton and Obama are designed to reach specific GHG quantities by 2050. Fuel standards are expected to be in place and attained by the automotive companies by 2020-2025. These initiatives are great, as it is important to keep our eye on the big picture and make sure that our energy policies are heading in a general direction that makes sense with our present environmental and consumption rate problems. However, by only hard-committing to long term goals, there is an inevitable lack of accountability. We already see it happening; 2000, then presidential hopeful George W Bush lambasted the Clinton administration for making America so heavily dependent on foreign oil. Current candidates make the same claim on Bush and feature very green policies in order to curb our oil addiction. However, I am very curious to see how quickly these policies will be implemented by the next in line, especially if our economy continues to slide in the direction it is currently headed. When you remove all government subsidies from the mix fossil fuels are, for better or worse, clearly the most economic and viable means of meeting our energy demand. Companies tend to increase their R&D budgets in years of prosperity and cut back when they fall on hard times. While our government is not a corporation and should not be treated as such, I think it will indeed be difficult to push for a renewables-heavy energy policy when we see food and gas prices rising daily. I can easily see the next president hailing the virtues of wind and biofuels at the State of the Union address, all the while pressuring OPEC to increase production to meet America's foreign oil needs. Until we get a clear, short-term energy projection from our candidates, I think I will take everything I read with a grain of salt.

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