Tag Archives: nuclear

Stranger Things Season 2: A Pointed Comment on the Department of Energy’s Nuclear History and Future?

This post is written assuming you have watched both season 1 and season 2 of ‘Stranger Things.’ If you have not yet watched and want to avoid potential spoilers, consider this your warning!

‘Stranger Things’ was the Netflix sensation out of nowhere in 2016, which made season 2 one of the most anticipated TV releases of this year. While this sci-fi mystery thriller seemingly had something for everyone– parallel dimensions, 80s nostalgia, mystical and mysterious forces, pop cultural references– I was also drawn in by the depiction of the Department of Energy (DOE) as the malevolent government forces behind the secretive experiments. Seeing DOE scientists at the fictional Hawkins Lab, rather than the typical Hollywood choices to use the FBI or the CIA for supernatural government cover-ups, was exciting for all of us who have worked in or with DOE and created a buzz in DOE offices and labs across the country.

Leading up to the release of season 2, I wrote about the interesting parallels that existed between Hawkins Lab and the real DOE labs. Some of these parallels appeared to be intentional similarities written by the Duffer Brothers (the show’s creators), while others were likely coincidental. With that in mind, I was very eager to watch for anything DOE-related in season 2 to see if I could gather more information about what it was the Duffer Brothers might have been trying to say about the real government agency, or would season 2 put to rest the connection between Hawkins Lab and the real DOE.



Well after just three nights on the couch, I’ve finished by ‘Stranger Things’ season 2 binge and have two main takeaways:

  1. I can’t believe I’m already done with the new batch of episodes and now have to go through another year at least before getting to do it again with season 3!
  2. One scene in particular has convinced me that the choice to use DOE was intentionally symbolic and is a pointed metaphor for the history and future of the agency.

The scene in question

Honestly, I would have been bingeing this show regardless of the DOE connection. So after a few episodes I had ceased paying terribly close attention to potential DOE parallels and was simply enjoying the story. But a specific scene in ‘Chapter Four: Will the Wise’ hit me over the head with its metaphor enough that I had to pause the episode to excitedly discuss it with my wife.

To set the scene, Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers had called the mother of the missing and dead (from season 1) Barb Holland to admit that they hadn’t been fully honest about the night that Barb went missing (they knew the truth that Barb had been lost and killed in the parallel dimension of the Upside Down, but Barb’s parents had been shielded from this fact). They expressed their hesitation to discuss the matter on the phone, as they were correctly concerned that their phones were tapped by the government monitoring forces, and instead requested to meet in person in public. When Nancy and Jonathan go to the meet up spot, they are sitting ducks and get intercepted by undercover Hawkins Lab agents. They are taken to the lab to speak with Dr. Sam Owens, the new head scientist at Hawkins Lab, replacing the evil and manipulative Dr. Martin Brenner. Immediately, this situation looks like it will end poorly for the teens, as it surely would have were Dr. Brenner still in charge– he was never overly concerned with protecting the citizens of Hawkins and might have resorted to threats of violence. However, Dr. Owens’ approach is instead to explain the difficult scenario he inherited and hope the Nancy and Jonathan understand why the secrets of the lab cannot be made public.

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The following is a transcript of the dialogue of this scene:

Dr. Owens: Men of science have made abundant mistakes of every kind. George Sarton said that. You guys know who George Sarton is? Doesn’t really matter. The point is mistakes have been made.

Nancy: Mistakes? You killed Barbara!

Dr. Owens: Abundant mistakes. But the men involved in those mistakes– the ones responsible for what happened to your brother and Ms. Holland’s death– are gone. They’re gone, and for better or worse I’m the schmuck they brought in to make things better. But I can’t make things better without your help.

Nancy: You mean without us shutting up?

Dr. Owens: She’s tough, this one. You guys been together long?

Jonathan: We’re not together.

Dr. Owens: You want to see what really killed your friend?

The three of them enter the area containing open portal to the Upside Down, which has grown much larger and more dangerous looking compared with what we saw throughout season 1. There are tentacles coming from the portal.

Dr. Owens: Teddy– brought you an audience today, hope you don’t mind.

Teddy (lab agent who is getting dressed in a protective suit): The more the merrier, sir.

Dr. Owens: I’d call it one hell of a mistake, wouldn’t you? The thing is, we can’t seem to erase our mistake. But we can stop it from spreading. It’s like pulling weeds. But imagine for a moment if a foreign state, let’s say the Soviets, if they heard about our mistake. Do you think they would even consider that a mistake? What if they tried to replicate that? The more attention we bring to ourselves, the more people like the Hollands that know the truth, the more likely that scenario becomes. You see why I have to stop the truth from spreading too, just like those weeds there. By whatever means necessary.

Teddy begins to spray fire all across the portal and the tentacles of the creature coming from the portal, which leads it to squirm and let out a noise of pain.

Dr. Owens: So, we understand each other now, don’t we?

After this scene when Nancy and Jonathan leave the lab, it is revealed that Nancy had a tape recorder and recorded Dr. Owens’ admission that Hawkins Lab, and thus DOE, was at fault for the death of Barb and all the other ills that had befallen the town due to the opening of this portal.

How does this relate to the real Department of Energy?

After hearing Dr. Owens describe the creation of the portal to the Upside Down and all the associated technology as a mistake and express the fear that enemy nations might replicate it, it immediately signaled that this scene was intended to describe the way many scientists and government officials felt during and after the Manhattan Project was used to develop and deploy the world’s first atomic bomb during World War II, as well as the fear and regret about the continued existence of nuclear weapons since that time.

The Manhattan Project was the government sponsored effort to develop the technology behind nuclear weapons, and it is to this effort that the Department of Energy traces its origins. These efforts were marked with secrecy, espionage, and a recognition of the vast worldwide implications of a potential development of a nuclear bomb.
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The quotes from Dr. Owens during this scene, if interpreted as an allegory for the development of nuclear weapons by DOE in the 1940s, provide a number of clues as to the parallels between the Manhattan Project and the ‘mistakes’ to which Dr. Owens refers.

Men of science have made abundant mistakes of every kind…The point is mistakes have been made.

Noting that all the experimentation and resultant terrors performed by Hawkins Lab during season 1 were mistakes does nothing to change that these mistakes were made. However, such an admission is one way to begin a healing and repair process. Similarly, many of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project have been noted in the years that followed to have found the entire effort to have been a mistake, using such admission to spur discussion about the future use of nuclear weapons, deal with personal guilt, and find any potential good that can come out of the situation.

Despite the official stance that DOE is “proud of and feels a strong sense of responsibility for its Manhattan Project heritage,” many people would still contend that it was wrong to bring nuclear weapons into the world. In the years that followed, various levels of regret have been expressed by the physicists involved in the creation of the nuclear technology.

  • While Albert Einstein was not directly involved in the development of nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project (the government denied him the necessary security clearance to be involved), it was a letter he wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to support the research and development of atomic weapons before Germany could do so that prompted to U.S. government to launch the Manhattan Project. Einstein would come to regret his role in kicking off the age of nuclear weapons after finding that the Germans never did produce an atomic bomb, stating that if he had known that would be the case he “would have never lifted a finger.”

 

 

  • At the same time, 70 scientists who actively worked on the Manhattan Project wrote and circulated the Szilard Petition that asked President Harry S. Truman not use the atomic bomb on populated land. Instead, they urged him to deploy an observed demonstration of the power of the bomb. The hope of these less hawkish scientists was that they were creating a weapon the threat of which would end the war, and if deployed on a remote island for the enemies to see its devastating power then that would be enough to earn surrender (in an odd footnote of history, the petition never made its way up the chain of command to reach the President). Obviously, the efforts of these scientists to delay (or ideally make unnecessary) the dropping of the atomic bomb failed.

 

  • The most famous Manhattan Project scientists who would openly consider the dawn of the age of nuclear weapons a mistake was J. Robert Oppenheimer– considered to be the father of the atomic bomb that came out of the Manhattan Project. At his farewell ceremony from Los Alamos Lab, Oppenheimer speculated that if atomic bombs were now to become a regular part of war then “mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.” Even more famously, in a meeting with President Harry S. Truman after the war, a still-shaken Oppenheimer confided that he felt he had blood on his hands. While Truman dismissed those concerns by insisting the responsibility for the deaths of the tens of thousands of Japanese who died was his own, Oppenheimer was instead concerned about the countless potential deaths his atomic bomb could cause to future generations.

While the Manhattan Project scientists like Shachter and those who signed the Szilard Petition were focused on whether the development and use of the bomb was the right move during World War II, Oppenheimer was forward looking and was contemplating if the development of the technology was one of those abundant mistakes that science makes. Several years later, Oppenheimer would confirm this position, stating that “we have made a very grave mistake” in even considering the massive use of nuclear weapons.

 

But the men involved in those mistakes– the ones responsible for what happened to your brother and Ms. Holland’s death– are gone. THey’re gone, and for better or worse I’m the schmuck they brought in to make things better. 

When Dr. Owens says that those responsible for the nefarious actions of Hawkins Lab are gone, he seems to be suggesting that because the original architects are gone that those in charge are largely inculpable. They are gone, and now the new leadership can only do what it can to make things better.

Similarly, in the years that followed the dropping of the atomic bombs, much was made about the need for new leadership behind the research, production, and regulation of the technology. Along with the uncertainty the scientists of the Manhattan Project had regarding the appropriateness of using the nuclear weapons was the uncertainty that that power belonged in the hands of the government. As such, some of these scientists joined and formed the Federation of Atomic Scientists in 1945 and pushed for civilian control of nuclear research and production. These scientists thought it was the scientists, not the policymakers, who were the best stewards for the technology and that a change in this leadership would allow them to make things better.

Another leadership option that was widely discussed in the years following World War II was the possibility of a United Nations Atomic Energy Commission to take worldwide responsibility for atomic energy. The idea was that worldwide leadership would ensure that nuclear technology was only developed for peaceful purposes, rather than the destructive and warring use that was immediately developed under the leadership of the U.S. government. The agreements of the Commission would have called for the United States to destroy its atomic arsenal and a disclosure of the atomic secrets, but disagreements between the Soviet Union and the United States ultimately undermined and tanked the Commission. This failure would point the world towards a future Cold War and a path where the nuclear question still loomed.

In the end, the U.S. government settled on passing the Atomic Energy Act in 1946, which created the Atomic Energy Commission (the predecessor agency of DOE) as a civilian committee that took over responsibility of legacy U.S. nuclear development from the Manhattan Project. While the agency eliminated complete military control, a Military Liaison Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission kept the military involved and there was still a “strict government monopoly on both scientific and technological knowledge, and fissionable materials.”

In the end, despite efforts on the national and international scale, the leadership was never changed completely away from the U.S. government that created the nuclear weapons in the first place. In the absence of such real change, it appears that things have predictably only gotten worse– with nuclear warhead inventories skyrocketing to above 60,000 at their peak during the Cold War and remaining around 10,000 warheads across 9 countries today. Perhaps if a real schmuck, an international equivalent to Dr. Owens, had been given control and leadership, then things would have been made better.
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I’d call it one hell of a mistake, wouldn’t you? The thing is, we can’t seem to erase our mistake. But we can stop it from spreading. It’s like pulling weeds.

While Dr. Owens and the new leadership at Hawkins Lab were not responsible for the creation of the portal to the Upside Down and the unleashing of the creatures that inhabit it, the job of containing the mistake did fall to them. They couldn’t undo the past even if they wanted to, so instead they continually try to clean up the mess and stop it from spreading.

This weeding metaphor is very apt for the responsibilities DOE continues to manage after the predecessor agency brought for the age of nuclear weapons. As Oppenheimer noted, “the physicists have known sin: and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” While the scientists cannot take back the knowledge of nuclear weapons and how to create them from the world, they have a responsibility to do what they can to prevent its spread.

During the Cold War, DOE was in charge of nuclear weapons development and production. While the goal since the end of the Cold War has been to decrease stockpiles of nuclear warheads across the world, DOE has remained involved in the fallout of these nuclear weapons of the past. In 2000, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was formed as a semi-autonomous agency within DOE whose jobs include managing the nuclear weapon stockpile, promoting international nuclear safety and nonproliferation, and more. Also included in these efforts is managing the environmental aspects of past and future nuclear development, such as managing and storing nuclear waste. These waste storage sites are managed by DOE across the country, often sparking outrage and controversy wherever they go, and are one of the ongoing containment activities required by DOE after the ushering in of nuclear weapons. DOE also finds itself at the table during discussions of international nuclear issues, such as its role in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in an effort to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.
Carlsbad-Nuclear-Waste-Isolation-Pilot-Plant
In addition to storing new nuclear waste, a large part of DOE’s mission (and associated budget) is to provide environmental cleanup at “107 sites across the country whose area is equal to the combined area of Rhode Island and Delaware” where nuclear weapons were developed, tested, and stored. Not only that, but DOE also finds itself continuing to pay for healthcare costs to those in the Marshall Islands that ended up affected by radioactive fallout of nuclear tests conducted in the 1950s on nearby islands. The need to perform these actions now and for the foreseeable future are possibly the best examples of DOE’s need to continue ‘weeding’ to prevent the spread of ills from its previously developed nuclear weapons.

But imagine for a moment if a foreign state, let’s say the Soviets, if they heard about our mistake. Do you think they would even consider that a mistake? What if they tried to replicate that?

One of the chief concerns at Hawkins Lab is that an enemy nation will find out about the technology they created and then assume it was done to create a weapon and/or replicate that technology for a weapon of their own. These fears are what drives the massive amount of security, secrecy, and monitoring at Hawkins Lab. These ideas are also directly applicable to the use of nuclear technology– both in its origin in the United States and in modern times across the globe.

In the days of the Manhattan Project, chief among the priorities were keeping the entire program secret from Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. While fission, the core scientific discovery behind the atomic bomb, was discovered in Germany, the ability to harness the resultant chain reaction and use it as a weapon was what was at stake. The result was a period of extensive espionage between the United States and these enemy nations, with Soviet spies actually successfully penetrating the Manhattan Project at several locations. Between these governments, it was no secret that the technology was actively being pursued and that the goal of doing so was for anything but peaceful means. However, the secrecy about the progress and scientific breakthroughs were critical– and in these ways the Manhattan Project embodied the paranoid secrecy that Dr. Owens and Hawkins Lab felt about their dimension jumping technology falling into the hands of enemy nations.

Even after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war ended, the efforts of the U.S. government continued to focus on making sure the nuclear capabilities stayed out of the hands of the Soviets and other nations. This secrecy was so important to the U.S. government that one of the main reasons the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission failed to become a reality was due to the proposed requirement that the United States turn over the scientific and technological secrets behind the nuclear bomb. This fear went to such an extent that when the Cold War started to heat up, accusations that Oppenheimer, the central figure in the development of the atomic bomb for the United States, was a communist resulted in a repeal of his security clearance.
Even today, the United States finds itself as the country with the most nuclear weapons in its arsenal but also leading the conversation in ensuring additional nations do not acquire these weapons and working to reduce the existing stockpiles of weapons across all nations. The desire to ensure foreign states do not acquire the technology that the United States developed decades ago rings true to the fears Dr. Owens expresses about the past mistakes at Hawkins Lab.

The more attention we bring to ourselves, the more people like the Hollands that know the truth, the more likely that scenario becomes. You see why I have to stop the truth from spreading too, just like those weeds there.

Lastly, the highly secretive nature of Hawkins Lab is very true to the situation across U.S. towns that were home to Manhattan Project facilities. Despite employing 130,000 workers and spending $2.2 billion during the course of the Manhattan Project, most people across the United States were floored to find the extent to which such a large operation could have been kept such a secret. The entire town of Oak Ridge was built around the secret project, with the existence of the town itself kept a secret as well. Even among employees at the Manhattan Project facilities the end goal of the labs were kept secret, with most lower level workers at the facilities simply performed whatever rote task they were assigned without being explained what its purpose was or the big picture. Many workers simply watched large quantities of raw materials enter the facility, saw nothing coming out, and were tasked with monitoring dials and switches  behind thick concrete walls without knowing the purpose behind these monitors or their jobs. This extent of secrecy was seen as critical to the mission of the Manhattan Project, as any amount of information spreading out to the outside world would put the mission at risk. Secrecy defined the early stages of the nuclear age, as it also defined the work going on in Hawkins Lab. The secrets behind the real DOE and Hawkins Lab only remained secrets, however, until the scientists lost control of their creations as they started to affect the unsuspecting public.

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Is this reading too much into one scene of a TV show?

While I don’t particularly like over-analyzing metaphors and symbolism that aren’t intended by creators to be there (shout out to literature teachers everywhere insisting that Fahrenheit 451 is about something Ray Bradbury himself denies), due to my experience with DOE and focus on its depiction in the show I couldn’t help but find some real world parallels that I think might have been an intentional metaphor included by the writers.

Admittedly, it seems that this part of the episode that is midway through season 2 might just be meant to signal shift in the plot. Whereas the antagonists in season 1 were Dr. Brenner and his team, with the Demogorgon being the unintended creation of these bad guys, it seems the Duffer Brothers used this scene as an opportunity to reset and shift the plot. The scientists at Hawkins Lab no longer have nefarious intentions (in a later episode, Dr. Owens is even the voice of reason in not allowing Will to die as a means to an end of defeating the mysterious forces putting the town at risk), and instead the main antagonists of the show are now the forces and creatures that continue to make their way through from the Upside Down.

Despite this function of the scene as a story-telling device that sets up the rest of season 2, it does also appear to speak to advent of nuclear weapons as the reason why DOE was chosen as the dark government agency in the series instead of the more commonly used FBI or CIA (seriously, can you name another pop culture avenue in which the Department of Energy plays a main role in the plot? The only two I could come up with are 1) Captain America, Campbell’s Soup, and DOE teaming up in comic book form for energy conservation and 2) the selection of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ participant Rick Perry as the Secretary of Energy.

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Source 1 Source 2

Because of the seemingly deliberate choice of words for Dr. Owens in this one scene, I believe the Duffer Brothers are pointing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons as the large mistake made by DOE in the past, which to this day requires constant weeding to prevent the effects of this mistake from spreading. Further, the devastating impacts shown by the creatures of the Upside Down when released into our dimension serve as a small reminder of the apocalyptic effects that the use of nuclear warfare could have on the world– a point that is made all the more poignant with nuclear tensions as high as they are today between the United States and certain hostile foreign states. For that, let’s all just hope diplomacy and cool heads prevail, lest the metaphorical Demagorgons of the world show what devastation really looks like.

 

Sources and additional reading
A Petition to the President of the United States: Dannen.com

As Hiroshima Smouldered, Our Atom Bomb Scientists Suffered Remorse: Newsweek

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.  

Best from “Today in Energy” in 2017

Among the wide array of regular articles the Energy Information Administration (EIA) releases, as detailed in this post on navigating EIA’s data sets , one of the most varied and interesting is the Today in Energy (TIE) series of articles released every weekday. According to EIA, TIE articles “provide topical, timely, short articles with energy news and information you can understand and use.”   

What makes TIE particularly compelling to read each day is that the topics it covers range across the spectrum of energy-related topics. Where most of the other reports released by the EIA are restricted to a specific fuel type or survey of consumers, TIE articles bring all of these topics from across EIA into relevant, digestible, and fascinating briefs to give a broad spectrum of information to its readers.



Further, TIE articles feature both stories that are relevant and important to current events (e.g., Hurricane Irma may cause problems for East Coast energy infrastructure) and stories that provide useful background information that can be referenced for years to come (e.g., Crude oil distillation and the definition of refinery). Not only that, but keeping up with TIE articles is a great way to keep up with other EIA publications as well, such as when articles such as the Annual Energy Outlook, International Energy Outlook, or Short-Term Energy Outlook are posted, TIE often includes an overview of some of the relevant conclusions of those articles and a link to read the full version.

To prove how valuable TIE articles can be for all these reasons, I’ve picked a sampling of 13 of my favorite TIE articles thus far in 2017 that are particularly interesting and demonstrate the cross-cutting topics offered by TIE. The ones I’ve chosen are based on the topics I find the most engaging, as well as the graphics that are the most clever and elegant.

1. EIA’s AEO2017 projects the United States to be a net energy exporter in most cases

January 5, 2017

Released the same morning as the Annual Energy Outlook 2017 (AEO2017), this article demonstrates the tendency of TIE to alert the readers of the latest EIA publications, while also providing a good overview to new readers as to what AEO2017 is and what the main takeaways from the report were.

2. Canada is the United States’ largest partner for energy trade

March 1, 2017

Utilizing the latest data from the U.S. census bureau, this article details the energy imports/exports between the United States and Canada broken out by U.S. region and fuel type and demonstrates TIE articles on the topic of trade. Most interesting is the graph showing the difference in electricity trade over the years from each of four U.S. regions.

Source: Energy Information Administration

3. U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions fell 1.7% in 2016

April 10, 2017

This TIE article from April breaks down carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions data, from the Monthly Energy Review, from 2005 to 2016 by both emitting fuel and industry, while also introducing carbon intensity as a metric and shows the progress made in reducing energy-related carbon intensity over the previous decade. As climate change heats up as an issue in domestic politics, industry, and foreign affairs, this type of window into U.S. CO2 emission data can prove invaluable.

4. Most U.S. nuclear power plants were built between 1970 and 1990

April 27, 2017

I chose this article because it provides a fascinating chart that shows the initial operating year of utility-scale generation capacity across the United States, broken out by fuel type, to demonstrate the relative age of each source of electricity generation and, in particular, the relative old age of the U.S. nuclear generating capacity, while also showing the explosion of non-hydroelectric renewable generation since the turn of the century.

Source: Energy Information Administration

5. American households use a variety of lightbulbs as CFL and LED consumption increases

May 8, 2017

An example of a TIE article getting into the use of energy inside of U.S. homes, this piece takes information from the 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) to show how residential lighting choices have been trending in the face of increased regulation and availability of energy-efficient lighting technologies, highlighting the differences depending on renter vs. owner occupied, household income, and whether or not an energy audit has been performed.

6. More than half of small-scale photovoltaic generation comes from residential rooftops

June 1, 2017

Utilizing data from the Electric Power Monthly, this article breaks out the use of small-scale solar power systems based on the geographic location and type of building, highlighting the rapid rise these systems have experienced in the residential sector, as a great example of renewable energy in the residential sector.

7. Dishwashers are among the least-used appliances in American homes

June 19, 2017

Again taking data from RECS, this TIE article provides insights on the frequency that certain appliances are in American homes, how often they go unused in those homes, pervasiveness of ENERGY STAR compliant appliances, and other data regarding residential energy use of appliances. This article also includes a plug for the 2017 EIA Energy Conference that was to be held a week after its publication, again showing how good of a job reading TIE articles daily can do of making sure you know the latest happenings at EIA.

8. Earthquake trends in Oklahoma and other states likely related to wastewater injection

June 22, 2017

A reason I find this TIE article particularly interesting is that it goes beyond just the energy data collected by EIA and synchs with outside data from the Earthquake Catalog to show additional effects of energy production in the environment. This kind of interplay of data sources demonstrates how powerful EIA data collection can be when analyzed in proper context.

9. Monthly renewable electricity generation surpasses nuclear for the first time since 1984

July 6, 2017

I highlight this TIE article for two reasons. First, the graphic below showing the monthly generation of nuclear compared with the cumulative generation of renewable energies—and the highlighting of 2016-17 particular—is really illuminating. This graph is a great demonstration of the power of data visualizations to convey the data and the message of that data. Second, the reason behind that graphic—that monthly renewable generation surpassed nuclear generation for the first time in over three decades—is a remarkable achievement of the renewable energy sector, showing the trending direction of the U.S. fuel mix going forward.

Source: Energy Information Administration

10. California wholesale electricity prices are higher at the beginning and end of the day

July 24, 2017

This TIE article was identified because of how interesting the topic of wholesale electricity prices varying throughout the day can be. As net metering and residential production of electricity increases across the United States, this will be a topic those in the energy fields will want to keep a keen eye on.

11. Among states, Texas consumes the most energy, Vermont the least

August 2, 2017

Grabbing data from the State Energy Data System, this TIE article presents a graphic displaying the most and least overall energy use as well as the most and least energy use per capita among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Using color to demonstrate the relative consumption and consumption per capita creates a pair of really elegant visuals.

Source: Energy Information Administration

 

12. Solar eclipse on August 21 will affect photovoltaic generators across the country

August 7, 2017

As everyone was scrambling to find their last minute eclipse glasses, this TIE article detailed where, and how much, the total solar eclipse of August 2017 was to diminish solar photovoltaic capacity and an assessment of how local utilities will be able to handle their peak loads during this time (a nice follow up TIE article on this also looked at how California dealt with these issues on the day of the eclipse, increasing electricity imports and natural gas generation).

Source: Energy Information Administration

13. U.S. average retail gasoline prices increase in wake of Hurricane Harvey

September 6, 2017

Another example of TIE addressing energy-related current events, this article not only provides the information and analysis of the effect that Hurricane Harvey had on retail gasoline prices, but it also provides the context of why the effect was being felt, how it compared to previous hurricanes, and what could be expected moving forward.

 

 

If you’ve been sufficiently convinced that Today in Energy articles would be an engaging read to start the day, you can sign up for an email subscription by following this link.

 

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.  

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World

To start out this review honestly, I finished reading The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin over a year ago so this is not a particularly ‘fresh’ review from me. However, I found that it was the perfect book with which to begin my book review series because it is considered by many in the energy industry to be the seminal book tracking the historical and geopolitical forces that shaped today’s landscape of energy markets and systems (and I was able to reference the notes I made to myself when reading through it for the first time).

This is book is incredibly rich with information about EVERYTHING related to energy. Obviously at over 800 pages, it’s not a light or quick read– but the depth of information and amount you can learn from it, regardless of it you’re learning about the state of world energy affairs for the first time or you’re a seasoned veteran of the industry, makes taking the time to read it more than worthwhile.



The first section of The Quest starts with a deep dive into the world of oil– the history and politics that have shaped today’s oil landscape, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the formation of the various nations in the Middle East. I really enjoyed learning more about this political and geographic background, as without proper historical context it can be difficult to fully understand the posturing, trade deals, and tensions that are found in the daily headlines regarding oil-rich countries and their conflicts. I also greatly enjoyed the background information on how the current ‘electric age’ came to be, detailing the genius of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, the early rivalry and battles between their nascent companies in setting up an electric system, and how the legacy of those decisions in the early 20th century still affect how we use energy over a hundred years later.

The book continues on to detail the future of oil, as well as a vast amount of background on the technologies that went into discovering, trading, and utilizing non-oil energy sources such as natural gas, coal, nuclear, and renewable energy. Yergin finishes the story by relating the wealth of background information and historical context of the international energy landscape to how it will come shape our world in the future– politically, economically, socially, and technologically– by way of climate change, public policy, the future of transportation, the security of the energy grid, and continuing competition between nations for resources.

Rating:

  • Content—5/5: This book is nothing if not extremely informative. Yergin does a phenomenal job at shining a spotlight at the relation between state of the modern world and the allocation of various sources of energy and how the balances have shifted over time. If you are interested in learning a broad but in depth background on the state of worldwide energy affairs, you would be hard-pressed to find another book with this much information and analysis crammed into it.
  • Readability3/5: Be forewarned, this is not a book to be picked up lightly unless you’re ready to commit to a thorough read. Obviously the intent was not for this to be a poolside, pop science read, but rather a thorough volume that extensively covers the topic. That is, of course, a good thing as Yergin wrote this book to be studied moreso than consumed. However, at over 800 pages it did at times feel like a homework assignment to pick up again and slough through another dense chapter—and because of this it ended up taking me pretty much all of last summer to read.
  • Authority—5/5: Yergin is a renowned energy researcher, market analyst, economist, and many other accolades that there aren’t room to list here. Not only does his name itself carry enough weight to make this book an authority on the topic, but the research and analysis that went into it is plainly evident. You are reading from one of the authorities in modern energy markets.
  • FINAL RATING—4.3/5: Again, this book is by no means a light read– and I had to take a break from it at times so I didn’t get overwhelmed on the topic (which is saying something, given that the future of energy is the social/political topic about which I’m most passionate). But if you can commit the time and really want to contextualize the past, present, and future of energy– do yourself a favor and pick up this book.

 

If you’re interested in following what else I’m reading, even outside of energy-related topics, feel free to follow me on Goodreads. Should this review compel you to pick up The Quest by Daniel Yergin, please consider buying on Amazon through this link.

 

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.  

President Obama’s Energy and Environmental Legacy

In the Fall 2016 issue of The Current, the quarterly online magazine from the Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment (WCEE), I wrote a retrospective on now-former President Obama’s energy and environmental legacy as compared with his campaign promises. The main conclusion of that article was that Obama was leaving office with mixed results when it came to delivering on his stated goals in the energy and environmental spheres, and that the long-term legacy of those achievements would rest on the action or inaction of his yet-to-be-determined successor. With about a year having passed since publication of that article, and almost eight months for President Trump to have set the course for his energy and environmental agenda, I thought it would be interested to see how some of the initial conclusions have held up and how the new administration has followed up on those specific issues.



A quick note that this article will be slightly more politically based than I intend to take typically in this outlet. The goal of this blog will be to provide more straightforward information and analysis based in data, rather than take a side on any specific partisan debate. I want to give you the information and tools, and you can interpret it however you choose. However because this deals with an article that was already published, I thought it might be worth checking into the facts again after a year.

The makeup of the national energy supply

Obama campaign promise: Clean coal and nuclear power will find a place to stay

Conclusion in initial article: Mixed results— Clean coal remains elusive; nuclear was showing promise under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Power Plan (CPP), which ended up getting stalled until courts could review

Update: Progress has been further stalled— Pushing of clean coal to revitalize the coal industry has long been a part of President Trump’s energy plan. However there has not been appreciable increases in the implementation of clean coal—and the construction of a first-of-its-kind clean coal power plant in Mississippi was indefinitely suspended after falling far behind schedule and beyond budget.

When it comes to the CPP, the Trump administration has moved forward on its campaign promise to roll it back. In March, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt informed states that they are not obligated to meet the deadlines set by the CPP while was still stalled in the judicial system.

The overall result is that the push to increase the portion of the nation’s energy supply made up by clean coal and nuclear power has stalled. The energy-related carbon dioxide intensity of coal has remained steady for years, indicating the proportion of ‘clean coal’ to total coal has not made significant gains. Similarly the below graph shows that the total power generation from nuclear, as well as the percentage of overall American energy generation attributed to nuclear, has remained steady for the last decade.

Based on Short-Term Energy Outlook data from Energy Information Administration (EIA) as of September 6, 2017—annual data for 2017 and 2018 are projections.

Based on Short-Term Energy Outlook data from Energy Information Administration (EIA) as of September 6, 2017—annual data for 2017 and 2018 are projections.

Clean tech investment and job growth

Obama campaign promise: Invest $150 billion over 10 years to deploy clean technologies and create millions of new jobs

Conclusion in initial article: Partially successful— the investment was exceeded by 2014, but the number of jobs created in the space fell well short of millions

Update: Inconclusive—For the entirety of Obama’s second term and since the Trump administration has taken office, the U.S. economy has consistently added jobs every month. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stopped providing data on “green jobs” in 2013. In absence of this monthly data, the best source to track jobs in the clean tech space is the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) U.S. Energy and Employment Report, issued annually in January. As such, it is impossible to know if the new jobs added to the economy are in the clean technologies, though some industry and government leaders have expressed concern that the Trump decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement will negatively impact the prospects for clean tech growth and employment.

Renewable electricity

Obama campaign promise: Increase percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources to 10% by 2012 and 25% by 2025

Conclusion in initial article: Mostly successful— reached 12% by 2012 but plateaued at about 13% through 2015

Update: Progress being made—While the Trump Administration has not focused on policies to specifically encourage renewable energy policies, market forces continue to encourage the penetration of renewable electricity generation. Annual data showed renewable energy generation reaching 15% in 2016 with EIA forecasting that to increase to 17% in 2017 and 16% in 2018.

Based on Short-Term Energy Outlook data from Energy Information Administration (EIA) as of September 6, 2017—annual data for 2017 and 2018 are projections.

 

Industrial energy efficiency

Obama campaign promise: Promote energy efficiency with industrial manufacturers

Conclusion in initial article: Awaiting results— Obama issued an executive order in 2010 that would achieve $100 billion in energy savings, but the results were to be measured over the following 10 years

Update: Still waiting—Obviously a one year update won’t change the conclusion that these results were still be measured over 10 years, which have not yet passed, so we’ll still await the outcome of this one. While no actions have been taken by President Trump to undue the executive order fulfilling Obama’s campaign promise focusing on national energy efficiency, it is noteworthy that President Trump’s approach to national energy issues has instead been to roll back regulations seen as impeding the development of U.S. energy resources (focusing on oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy).

Government support of oil companies

Obama campaign promise: Eliminate tax breaks to big oil companies

Conclusion in initial article: No progress— Obama’s attempt to eliminate oil tax breaks were rejected by Congress for all of Obama’s proposed budgets

Update: No expected progress– President Trump’s priorities are notably different than Obama’s were, so the status quo of the tax breaks for oil companies are wholly expected to persist, as doing otherwise would not be seen as progress by Trump. On the contrary, there has been speculation of Trump expanding government aid to prop up the coal industry as well. These actions would keep with a worldwide trend according to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund that concluded fossil fuel subsidies, at $5.5 trillion annually, account for 6.5% of the global GDP.

Carbon emissions

Obama campaign promise: Make significant progress to reduce the national carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions

Conclusion in initial article: Jury still out— CPP would reduce CO2 emissions from power plants for the first time, but the Supreme Court placed a hold on the implementation

Update: As noted earlier, one of Obama’s signature energy accomplishments in the CPP is on life support after the Trump administration signaled to states that they would not be held to the emission requirements. However, U.S. CO2 emissions might be another area where the market forces are already in play to affect the outcome regardless of executive action or inaction. The below two graphs from EIA show a forecast continued drop in CO2 emissions per capita and a drastic drop in total CO2 emissions from a peak in 2019 to a minimum in 2033 (before again increasing due to growing population levels). This drop in CO2 emissions in the absence of federal policy comes because of the continuously falling price of less carbon intensive fuels such as natural gas, nuclear, and renewable energy sources compared with coal and petroleum, in addition to individual states and companies pledging to reduce emissions regardless of whether or not the CPP becomes law.

EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook
EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook

Conclusion

Obama was elected after campaigning on addressing climate change and promising federal action to reduce impacts of the energy sector. Upon his imminent departure from office, giving him a grade on fulfilling his campaign promises proved difficult due to some of the long-term nature of potential results as well as the impact his successor could potentially have on furthering or rolling back parts of his agenda. With the benefit of another year to reflect upon, the conclusion of Obama’s legacy as being overall mixed seems even more entrenched due to the contrasting views held by President Trump. While the dominoes of some of his actions (such as federal investment in clean tech and industrial energy efficiency) are still falling, some of his more ambitious attempts (namely the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement) have been thwarted by the Trump administration.

If you’re interested in watching the energy makeup of the United States, the relative carbon emissions, or the overall total energy used across the nation, stay tuned for a primer I’m planning on the EIA’s vast public datasets to show you how you can find that raw data yourself.

 

 

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.