DOE Secretary Chu Says We’re Behind in Clean Energy Development

The success of China and other countries in clean energy industries represents a new “Sputnik moment” for the United States, Secretary Chu said this week in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He referred to the Soviet Union’s surprise launch, in October 1957, of the first satellite to orbit the Earth.

The United States risks falling behind in state-of-the-art technology, Chu said. He called for greater investment in energy research and development.

“From wind power to nuclear reactors to high-speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead,” Chu said. “America still has the opportunity to lead in a world that will need a new industrial revolution to give us energy we want inexpensively and carbon-free,” he said.

“When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to any one,” Chu said. However, he added, “I think time is running out.”

Chu said the United States must innovate or risk falling far behind in several developing technologies, including:

• High-voltage transmission. China has deployed the world’s first ultra-high-voltage alternating current and direct current lines — including one capable of delivering 6.4 GW to Shanghai from a hydroelectric plant nearly 1,300 miles away in southwestern China.  These lines are more efficient and carry much more power over longer distances than those in the United States, Chu said.

• High-speed rail. In six years, China has gone from importing this technology to exporting it, with the world’s fastest train and the world’s largest high-speed rail network, Chu said.

• Advanced coal technologies.  China is rapidly deploying super critical and ultra-super critical coal combustion plants, which have fewer emissions and are more efficient than conventional coal plants because they burn coal at much higher temperatures and pressures. China also is “moving quickly to design and deploy technologies for integrated gasification combined-cycle plants as well as carbon capture and storage,” he said.

• Nuclear power.  China has more than 30 nuclear power plants under construction, more than any other country in the world, and is actively researching fourth-generation nuclear power technologies.

• Alternative energy vehicles.  China has developed a draft plan to invest $17 billion in central government funds in fuel economy, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric and fuel cell vehicles, with the goal of producing 5 million new energy vehicles and 15 million fuel-efficient conventional vehicles by 2020.

• Renewable energy. China is installing wind power at a faster rate than any nation in the world, and manufactures 40% of the world’s solar photovoltaic systems.  It is home to three of the world’s top 10 wind turbine manufacturers and five of the top 10 silicon-based Solar PV manufacturers in the world, DOE said.

China’s totalitarian government, of course, doesn’t worry about process or debate in making these investments. By contrast, the U.S. seems gridlocked on moving forward with the urgency Secretary Chu correctly advocates.  As he said, there is still time for us to regain the edge in deploying these emerging technologies but all of the stakeholders will need to engage in that problematic search for compromise win-win solutions. And that seems to be a very hard choice for most of them.

Extreme Energy Home Makeover Winner Announced

I traveled to Lake Crystal, Minnesota this week to meet with the winners of Heartland’s Extreme Energy Home Makeover contest. Dave and Amanda Gilman live in a two-story home built in the early 1900s. Amanda operates a daycare out of their home and although they have tried to make their home as efficient as possible, there are many improvements we’ll be making to help them save energy.

The windows are original to the home with absolutely no insulation around them. There are over 20 in the home, creating great inefficiencies! We will be replacing them with ENERGY STAR rated windows. We will also be adding insulation to the attic, weather-stripping doors and replacing their refrigerator with an ENERGY STAR model. The Gilmans have two enclosed porches, one of which is used quite heavily for Amanda’s daycare. The areas underneath the porches are empty, creating cold conditions in the winter. We will be adding insulation there as well as checking for other leaks in those rooms.

Heartland has hired Swedberg Construction of Lake Crystal to perform the energy upgrades on the Gilmans’ home. I met with Don Swedberg at the Gilmans’ home this week and he is excited about digging into the project. He has a lot of experience with older homes and improving their efficiency.

Heartland also continues to move forward with energy makeovers for four of our customers: Lake Crystal, New Ulm, Colman and Tyndall. I will continue to provide updates as we move forward with these projects.

Dave and Amanda Gilman were announced as the winners of Heartland's Extreme Energy Home Makeover.

National Energy Policy Gridlock in 2011-12?

That question is on the minds of energy providers as we look for certainty in our operating environment. There may be none forthcoming. And there may be more wild swings in national elections. The following is a consensus summary taken from multiple sources.

Many references were made to the Great Depression era, both before and after the Republican election blowout earlier this month. In truth, we may be returning to a kind of 1930’s standard in our politics. If so, hold on for a wild ride in the coming decade.

The massive Republican gains in Congress and equally big gains in governorships as well as state legislatures come just two years after a Barack Obama-led Democratic surge.

It was the first time since 1952 there have been gains of more than 20 House seats by one party or the other in three consecutive elections. Whether the outcome swings back to the Democrats in two years depends on the economy and what the new Congress, Obama and new state governments do to convince voters that things are getting better.

Congress underwent bigger changes during the 1930s and into the 1940s, a period where the United States survived the Great Depression, won World War II and began what would be forty years of Cold War with the former Soviet Union.

In fact, the decade that just passed was the most stable of the past eight for congressional turnover. From 2000 to 2008, the average loss or gain in congressional elections by the party holding the White House was only 14 seats.

In the ’30s and ’40s, that average loss or gain was 47. It was 24 in the ’50s, 23 in the ’60s, 18 in the ’70s, 16 in the ’80s and 17 in the ’90s.

Only five elections since 1958 have equaled or surpassed the average of the 47 in the ’30s and ’40s: Dwight Eisenhower’s second term in 1958, the rising opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War in 1966, the post-Richard Nixon Watergate election of 1974, and the reaction to Bill Clinton’s first two years in 1994. This month’s GOP landslide would have been almost normal in the ’30s and ’40s.

Franklin Roosevelt swept into power in 1932 with a gain of 90 Democrats in the House and nine in the Senate. In 1938, his party lost 71 House seats, and 55 four years later, in the first full year of American involvement in World War II.

In 1946, President Truman’s Democrats lost 45 House and 12 Senate seats (and there were only 96 senators then). They gained back 75 House and nine Senate seats when he was elected two years later. Two years after that, after the Korean War began, Truman’s party lost 29 House and six Senate seats.

Next year, states will begin redrawing congressional boundaries, a process that has become an incumbent protection activity in many states. Ironically, protecting individual members may actually add to the volatility for our political system.

In recent decades, it has produced a House far more polarized than the nation. It makes those serving more competitive districts truly worry about retaining their jobs. It seems that when wave elections do come, the bridge builders go with the bridges.

As she was campaigning for re-election last month, Representative Herseth Sandlin tried to defend her votes as good for South Dakota as well as for the country. Voters disagreed. She lost to newcomer Kristi Noem.

Herseth Sandlin was among 54 centrist so-called Blue Dog Democrats, most of them from perennial “swing” districts, whose ranks were decimated. The new Congress will be more partisan with more conservative Republicans and a more liberal Democratic caucus, and it will be serving an American public demanding that it work together.

Only time will tell how this Congress will be seen by voters in two years. And if recent history is any guide, it could be wild.

National Education Week

This is National Education Week. I have a personal interest in this beyond the usual reasons. My wife is a retired educator who worked with special needs kids. I have a niece in another plains state that has been a two time nominee for teacher of the year. She teaches social studies in a middle school. Both these dedicated people work(ed) in public schools.

Locally, we have many hard working educators at all levels of education. Madison Public Schools, Saint Thomas private school, and Dakota State University serve our students well.

It takes special people to be educators. Education in America has produced generations of literate persons whose skills have been the basis for the success of our economy. This system of public education, so important to Thomas Jefferson and other Founders, is based on a simple social contract between generations. This social contract says, in effect, the older generation will support the education of the younger generation. However frayed this social contract is from time to time, it has stood the test of time.

We know that public education is a living system that should always be held accountable for its results. Equally important, the system must always be open to improvements to address our evolving national economy and culture. Our collective involvement in education will be the key to meeting these goals.

I’m proud of the educators in my family, my community, and our country.  And I am equally committed to keeping my personal part of the public education social compact so important to our country.

More on HCPD Rates

I wrote in a previous blog about rising electric rates across the nation. As I said in that blog, unfortunately this trend includes both Heartland and the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), the federal agency that supplies hydro power from the Missouri River Pick Sloan Projects. WAPA was hit hard by the impacts of a decade long drought. Heartland is impacted by rising generation and transmission costs.

96% of our budget is generation and transmission costs to provide reliable power to our customers in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. Only 4% of our budget includes administrative and general (A&G) overhead costs. These A&G costs include both our employment costs as well as operation of our headquarters (HQ)building. Our new HQ building impacts our budget less than 1/2%, including principal, interest, and operating costs. We have reduced our energy consumption by 50% in the new building.

Long term trends in generation and transmission costs depend on factors such as market prices for surplus power, load growth, energy efficiency measures by our customers, environmental regulations, and any new construction.  Rest assured that, as always, we’ll deliver power at the lowest possible cost.