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Friday, April 22, 2011

Robert F. Kennedy - Green Gold Rush: A vision for energy independence, jobs and national wealth

Last night I attended a lecture by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles. I was a bit worried about making it to the lecture because President Obama was shuttling around the Westside yesterday fundraising. On a previous visit of his I sat still in gridlocked traffic for about an hour and 45 minutes because one of the main east-west roads in LA was shut down for the Presidential motorcade. 
Miraculously, I didn’t encounter any traffic last night, it even seemed much lighter than a normal rush hour. I attribute this mostly to people fighting the last war. Because there were loud warnings about impending traffic gridlock, people changed their patterns. Also, the White House witnessed the disruption caused by their last visit and took measures to fix the problems, namely using a helicopter whenever possible to stay out of traffic.

The end result of all this was that I budgeted an hour’s worth of travel time for a trip that ended up taking 15 minutes, better to be early than late though I suppose. Arriving early gave me some time to catch up on my Businessweek reading. I was able to get through a great article about cloud computing and how Amazon Web Services is well on the path towards turning web infrastructure (servers, processing power) into a utility that any company can gain access to on a pay-as-you-go model.

I mention that the talk was at Temple Isaiah because prior to Kennedy taking the stage a previous Temple president said a few words about the Temple’s founder, Albert Lewis. As the gentleman took the stage he walked with a cane and seemed frail. Once he got into his comments though, I was left with the impression that old people can get away with about anything. He began by mentioning how he was good friends with the Albert Lewis, and said some kind words. Then, even as he acknowledged that everyone was anxious to hear Kennedy speak, he proceeded to read an entire letter from the Lewis. Not many people under the age of 80 could get away with giving 10-15 minutes of opening remarks for a headline speaker.

Finally, Kennedy took the stage. He sort of began with a whimper, looking a bit nervous and stuttering over words. As I was about to write off the experience, thinking I had at least seen a Kennedy speak live, he found his stride.

Kennedy’s main point was that ‘dirty’ energy - coal, oil, and nuclear - are not nearly as cheap as their proponents make them out to be. Though coal is often cited as only costing 11 cents a kilowatt hour, when external factors, or as he called them subsidies, are taken into account it is actually much more expensive.

The immediate costs associated with these subsidies are the dedicated infrastructure required, such as maintenance for the 3,000 miles of coal roads in U.S. A typical road has 4 inches of so of asphalt, but a coal road has 24 inches of asphalt to keep it from immediately being pulverized by the massive trucks hauling coal. Even with the extra padding, the coal roads need to be repaired every couple years or so, costing millions of dollars per mile. These maintenance costs are paid by taxpayers, but are not taken into account for the 11 cents a kilowatt hour price for coal power.

Another hidden cost he cited is health and environmental. These power sources are called ‘dirty’ for a reason. And the dirty part comes not just from burning them, which is bad enough, but also from their extraction. Mining is ravaging the landscape of West Virginia as mountains are flattened through blasting to get to the coal. Pollutants from mining is often dumped into rivers and other water sources, leading to not only environmental damage but health concerns. The health costs from the cases of asthma and cancer caused by polluting industries is not taken into account in the 11 cents a kilowatt hour price cited for coal power.

As Kennedy was moving through his list of hidden subsidies for dirty energy, he kept returning to his second main point of the evening, what he sees as the failure of the media to expose the shenanigans of big energy companies. His thesis here was essentially that corporate, i.e. Republican, interests have gained control of most media outlets. As part of this takeover, they have lessened balanced reporting of the news, and replaced the reporting of complex foreign policy and domestic news with celebrity gossip catering to the lowest common denominator. He believes that investigative journalism has also been greatly weakened in the current news media.

I find this second point interesting because pundits on the right often disparage the ‘mainstream’ media as well. Though I don’t understand how Fox News is not considered mainstream. Journalists can’t catch a break. Nobody wants to pay for newspapers they can read online for free, Republicans attack them for being stooges of the liberal elite, and Democrats castigate them for not doing enough to uncover corporate wrongdoing.

Kennedy did have one very good point about undue corporate influence in America. In Citizens United vs FEC, a Supreme Court decision from 2010, the court ruled that because of free speech, corporate donations to independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited. This more or less freed up corporation to unlimited donations to politicians, and greatly increased the influence of corporations on politics.

It is hard to understand how a corporation has a right to free speech. In a subsequent ruling in 2011, the Supreme Court found that AT&T did not have a right to personal privacy in claiming that records should be exempt from disclosure. The justices unanimously ruled that there is a difference between an individuals rights, and a corporations. How the situation between free speech is different than that of privacy is beyond me.

After spending the better part of the speech building a case for a downward spiral in society where corporations are controlling the government, ruining the environment, and leaving all societies major problems for the next generation to fix, Kennedy at least ended on an upbeat note. He discussed his venture capital companies investment in a solar energy plant in California’s Mojave Desert.

The plant, from BrightSource Energy, will cost approximately as much to build as would a comparable coal plant, and significantly less than a nuclear plant. But the main difference comes after the plant’s construction. While a coal plant requires coal, which has to be extracted, and all the associated environmental hazards, and oil required for transportation, solar plants get free and abundant power from the sun.

Kennedy argued that the technology to meet all power needs from solar already exists, the only impediment is an upgrade to the energy grid required to port electricity from the sunny southwest to the rest of the country. He posited that this investment would be more than offset by the savings from no longer subsidising dirty power and cutting out the costs of importing oil. It is a beguiling vision for the future, and I hope he is at least partly right.

That article in Businessweek mentioned a saying about predicting technology trends. People tend to overestimate what will happen in two years, and underestimate what will happen in ten years. If our energy consumption patterns don’t measurable change in the next couple years, but the proportion of energy coming from renewables is drastically higher in ten years, that will be a very good thing.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Scientists or Communicators

Recently I’ve come across a debate about whether scientists should try communicating directly to the public, or whether they should focus on getting their research to the press and letting them communicate it to the public. Full disclosure here, I come down on the latter side of the argument because a good bit of my job revolves around being a liaison between scientists and the press. But for reasons other than employment security, I think that scientists communicating directly with the public isn’t always the best idea.

This is not a one-size-fits-all discussion though. There are  a number of scientists who are natural communicators, and in that case they should be encouraged in the strongest terms possible to communicate away. The less that science is distorted by translating it from person to person, the better. The problem arises when we are faced with the reality that the majority of scientists are not natural communicators.

There are a number of workshops and programs to teach scientists communication skills, here is a story about one I attended in February. But there is a difference between being trained in something, and actually being good at it. Though virtually everyone engages in a great deal of communication every day, few of us are actually good at it, even fewer when the communication in question is written.

This is where a communications professional, like myself, or a journalist comes in. We spend every day thinking about how to communicate these issues to the public, so in theory we are pretty good at it. Scientists can have a tendency to almost regurgitate their findings, and they are so immersed in their worlds that they have a hard time knowing the right level to communicate to the general public at.

I recently watched an NSF video of Alan Alda talking about what he learned getting scientists to communicate during his time hosting the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers. I love the part towards the end when he is talking about his efforts to drag scientists back into conversations when they drift into lecture mode. Having someone who is skilled in communication can be key in getting scientists to effectively tell their story.

Also, I believe pretty strongly that having that filter can be necessary when communicating science. Most Americans are generally in favor of science and technology when they first hear about it. The problem arises when this newly learned scientific knowledge comes into contact with other beliefs. For example, when you look at support for stem cell research, it breaks pretty cleanly along religious lines because the debate has been framed that way.

I’m not optimistic enough to think that communications professionals will always be smart enough to frame science news so that it doesn’t fall into the culture wars, as stem cell research has. But someone who spends every day thinking about communication will have a better chance to anticipate those stumbling blocks, than will someone who spends every day thinking about a way to cure cancer.