Mythbust: Dietary Changes to Save the World

Image result for beef emissions image


Every now and then, a fresh new research article comes out saying that if only people became vegetarian, or stopped eating beef, or ate more beans, that we’d take care of climate change.  Granted, agriculture and cattle production do have emissions associated with them and we need reductions everywhere we can get them.  Further, the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change: the hyperlink is to its chapter on Agriculture, a pdf download) warns that large increases in meat consumption, especially of the middle class in China, will increase global emissions by as much as a few percent.

So, the latest such article is in The Atlantic, “If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef” by James Hamblin with the tagline or summary “With one dietary change, the U.S. could almost meet greenhouse-gas emission goals.”  It summarizes a paper by Helen Harwatt and others that makes this argument.

This sounds amazing!  I didn’t know it was so easy!  (Even though it’s really hard to get 300 million people to change their diet.)

But more important, how accurate is this?  It turns out that the tagline is true, but the greenhouse-gas emissions goals it references are so weak this doesn’t turn out to mean much.

Here are a couple of key questions which really reveal that the devil is in the details:

  1. What or which climate goals are these?  The article references Obama’s climate goals for 2020 and says that this dietary change will get us 46% to 74% of the way there.  So what were Obama’s climate goals, how ambitious were they, and therefore how large or significant is a 46% to 74% step to those goals?
  2. How do these emissions due to beef compare to emissions due to fossil fuels?  While all reductions in emissions are great, do we need to focus on creating policies that meaningfully curtail beef production or, for instance, that curtail fossil fuel production and use?  If we answer “both”, what practical steps do we take?

Obama’s Climate Goals
The 2020 Obama pledge is a pledge that he made at the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which was that emissions would be 17% lower in 2020 than in 2005.  The graphic below which visually shows this is from the Climate Action Tracker webpage for the US: the 2 black, round circles in 2020 column, which the first vertical band of colors.  These black dots are located right about at the transition from the red color to the yellow color.  The red color means that emission reduction efforts are absolutely inadequate, yellow that they are medium (not adequate but not completely awful), green that they are adequate, and dark green means that emission reduction efforts are a role model for the world.

These particular climate goals mentioned by the article are completely insufficient.  Further, this report came out in 2017 when emissions are lower than in 2005 (as seen in the article), mostly due to some energy efficiency and the switch from coal to natural gas.  So getting us now from our current emissions to our 2020 emissions goals represents a change in emissions from about 6800 MT eq (metric tons equivalent, which already factors in the fact that methane and other gases are more potent than carbon dioxide) to about 6200 MT eq.  This is a decrease of about 10% in overall emissions, and so if every American stopped eating beef and ate beans instead, we’d get about 46% to 74% of that 10% decrease.  In other words, this colossal dietary switch would reduce our overall emissions by about 5 to 7% overall.

I would celebrate such a reduction for sure, but it’s not the smoking gun or amazing progress the article makes it sound like, huh?  Plenty of people are taking this to mean that if we made this dietary change, we would meet some super aggressive climate goals or would be 60% of the way toward truly doing the US’s part in stopping climate change.  Not so.

Emissions compared to fossil fuels
The true culprit in climate change is fossil fuels.  The US EPA reports the breakdown of US greenhouse gases by economic sector in 2015 in the pie chart below.  Again, this is in units of equivalent emissions, which already factors in the effects of the stronger potency of gases such as methane (CH4) compared to carbon dioxide (CO2).

Pie chart of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector in 2015. 29 percent is from electricity, 27 percent is from transportation, 21 percent is from industry, 12 percent is from commercial and residential, and 9 percent is from agriculture.

Total Emissions in 2015 = 6,587 Million Metric Tons of CO2 equivalent

Almost all of the remaining 91% of the emissions from electricity, industry, transportation, and commercial/residential are from fossil fuels.  So agriculture represents about half the emissions of any one of these categories, but the rest of the categories are linked by having fossil fuels as the root cause.  So clearly, doing something about fossil fuels would be drastically more important and effective than doing something about diet.  (Not to say that doing something about diet isn’t good: I eat very little meat, but this alone isn’t going to solve climate change!)

I applaud anyone who changes their diet for health and/or climate reasons.  Eating less meat helps with both.  But the first graphic shows just how deep our emissions reductions need to be to truly tackle climate change.  We need to be talking much more about that, and way to curb fossil fuels that are politically feasible in this country, such as a revenue neutral carbon fee with rebate, which would create 2.8 million jobs and decrease emissions 50% from 1990 levels within 20 years.

It gets confusing how people reference different years as reference levels, but looking at the first graph we can get a sense of it.  1990 levels were about 6200 metric tons (eek!  we are currently above 1990 levels in 2017!), while 2005 levels were about 7100 metric tons.  So a 50% reduction from 1990 levels within 20 years would have us at about 3000 metric tons of emissions.  Holy cow, what a real step forward!

The good news is that with some political activism and education, this carbon fee is politically feasible because it grows the economy, is not a tax because revenues are returned to households as a rebate, and does not grow the government because the government doesn’t keep the revenue.  Groups like Citizens Climate Lobby are working to educate the public and convince Congress to pass this law, which is simple and is only a few pages long.  Some major gas companies even support the concept in general, as a type of carbon action that is fair and transparent.

We all are passionate about different topics, but if we are serious about wanting to slow or stop climate change, we’ve got to figure out a practical way to curtail fossil fuel use economy-wide!

I worry about articles that make it seem like diet or some other quick fix (which is still quite difficult) will do it.  What does this type of misinformation serve to do?  Divide the climate activist community on the best path forward?  Help people feel proud of themselves for changes they will or already made (becoming vegetarian)?  Distract from the main cause, which is fossil fuels?  Make climate activists seem elitist or disconnected, focusing on peoples’ personal eating habits?  What do you think?  Why might these ideas about diet seem to be so popular and eagerly believed?

As always, I welcome your comments!


Tritium leaks at nuclear power plants

I’ve got family from Greensboro, NC visiting and we got talking about energy.  They were telling me that there’s a controversy in NC over Duke Energy (a utility company) trying to charge ratepayers for a coal ash spill accident that occurred a few years ago and to pay for new regulations over coal ash.  Although much of the area around Greensboro is served by Duke Energy, the city of High Point just outside of it is not.  It gets its power from a different provider, with no or very little coal fired electricity and mostly nuclear power from a plant in South Carolina just southwest of Charlotte, NC. The city of High Point is totally exempt from this rate paying controversy due to nuclear. Pretty interesting!  My family didn’t even know that nuclear supplies a significant portion of power to their state.

I read up on the Catawba nuclear power plant and the only incident with it listed on Wikipedia was a tritium release (I’m not saying Wikipedia is the best or only source but it’s a good source to review among many).  Last year I had written an article for the New York Water Environment Association (NYWEA) on a tritium leak from the Indian Point nuclear power plant just outside of New York City.  The media doesn’t do very good reporting on tritium leaks, so it reminded me of the article I wrote and that I could post it here on my website as well.  This should provide context for just about any news about tritium leaks at nuclear power plants.

I hope you find this interesting and insightful.  As always, I’m eager for feedback and responses!

Balancing the Facts on Tritium Levels at Indian Point
On February 6, 2016, the Entergy Corporation notified state and federal authorities and the public that elevated levels of radioactive tritium were found in 3 out of over 40 groundwater test wells underneath the Indian Point Energy Center (nuclear power plant) in Buchanan, NY, located about 30 miles north of Manhattan [1,2]. The tritium levels were approximately 1,000 times smaller than those which trigger mandatory reporting to authorities and did not pose a threat to the environment or human health, but much of the media coverage focused on alarmist angles or facts that distracted from this core message.

The timing of this incident after the water-related tragedies in Flint, Michigan and Hoosick Falls, New York might contribute to a heightened concern about water quality. Radiation is invisible and not well understood by the public or media; and, naturally, we tend to fear what we do not understand. There is also a great deal of misinformation spread about radiation by anti-nuclear organizations and individuals. It is, therefore, important to transparently discuss and analyze the radioactive tritium leak at Indian Point.

Figure 1. The Indian Point Generating Station in Buchanan, NY
Source: Wikipedia, creative commons license

What is Tritium?
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a half-life of about 12 years and a biological half-life of approximately 10 days [3]. Typical non-radioactive hydrogen has 1 proton and no neutrons, while tritium has 3 nuclear particles: 1 proton and 2 neutrons. The short biological half-life of tritium means that it does not accumulate within biological organisms because half of any ingested quantity is excreted every 10 days. At 100 days after ingestion, for example, only 0.1 percent would remain (10 biological half-lives, or 0.5 raised to the power of 10).

Figure 2. Nuclei of the three isotopes of hydrogen: protium (normal hydrogen),               deuterium, and tritium.

Tritium is naturally present at very low levels in the environment via interactions of high energy cosmic rays with gaseous particles in the atmosphere. Tritium decays into a non-radioactive helium atom, releasing a beta particle which is essentially a high energy electron [3]. Radiation damages cells and DNA, but cells have elaborate repair mechanisms [4] and no health effects are observed at low doses [5].

Based on detailed studies and modeling, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) set maximum drinking water standards for tritium at 20,000 pCi/L (picoCuries per liter of water) [6]. The Curie is a fairly large measure of radiation, but pico means one trillionth or 0.000000000001 of something, so the picoCurie – or even 20,000 pCi – represents a very small amount of radiation. The NRC’s studies showed that if water with a 20,000 pCi/L concentration of tritium was consumed by a person over the course of a whole year, this would result in a radiation dose of less than 2 mrem (millirem) in that year [6].

This 2 mrem dose is very small, and is:
**   Half the dose from a roundtrip flight between Washington, DC and Los Angeles (4 mrem) (because less atmosphere at higher elevations results in lessradiation shielding).
**  About 7 times less than the dose we all receive from naturally occurring radioactive potassium in our bodies (15 mrem)
** 75 times less than the average exposure Americans receive from medical tests and procedures each year (150 mrem).
** 150 times less than the average annual dose from natural background radiation in our environment (300 mrem) [6].

Thus, daily ingestion of water with a concentration of 20,000 pCi/L is safe. In fact, it could be argued that the tritium drinking water limit is rather conservative, erring on the side of caution since none of us thinks twice about the radiation dose we get from flying or from the naturally occurring radioactive atoms in our bodies.

Tritium Releases from Indian Point
The Indian Point Energy Center has two separate nuclear reactors, since unit costs are decreased by operating more than one reactor at the same site. The reactors are known as Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) because water at high pressures is used to cool the reactor core and carry heat to steam turbines that generate electricity. The fundamental basis of nuclear power in PWRs is that Uranium-235 absorbs a neutron, splits or fissions into 2 smaller nuclei, and this reaction releases a large amount of energy. In addition, either 2 or 3 neutrons are produced when each uranium atom fissions, and these neutrons can make other Uranium-235 atoms split. The reaction is controlled using non-fissionable materials that absorb neutrons, preventing them from reacting with U-235.

One of the ways the nuclear reaction is controlled in PWRs is by adjusting the concentration of boric acid in the coolant water. Boron is an excellent neutron absorber, giving operators a way to fine tune the power output of the reactor. The coolant water is housed in separate pipes and does not come into direct contact with the reactor. Some tritium is produced in the coolant loop by the interaction of neutrons from the reactor with boron atoms. Tritium, therefore, builds up in the coolant and must be purged from time to time. Because the concentrations are low from a safety and environmental perspective, PWR reactors are permitted to intentionally dilute and release the tritiated water under strict guidelines [6].

The elevated groundwater tritium levels beneath Indian Point indicate a leak in underground pipes that store and transport coolant water. Regulations do not allow the unintentional discharge of tritiated water no matter how low the concentration, so Indian Point must locate and fix or replace any leaky pipe sections. The best current understanding is that a leak in the pipes between storage and release is responsible for the elevated levels. Investigations into the cause continue. [1,2]

Typical concentrations of tritium in the 40 groundwater testing wells beneath Indian Point were 12,300 pCi/L. The elevated tritium levels found in three of the groundwater monitoring wells were initially as high as 8 million pCi and later increased to 14 million pCi [7,8]. Many articles reported the first figure as a dangerous or “alarming” 65,000 percent increase in radiation levels or reported that it was 400 times the drinking water limit [7]. The numerical figures themselves are accurate, but are not dangerous because the site was designed so its groundwater does not flow to drinking water, but rather flows to a discharge canal where it is intentionally diluted. In addition, further dilution to undetectable levels occurs upon reaching the Hudson River. For more information, see Reference 9, written by John Kelly, a retired radiation protection manager who oversaw construction of Indian Point and has lived near and worked at the plant for decades.

Many media articles were comparing apples to oranges by reporting radiation levels in comparison to drinking water levels. When the public reads that radiation levels are 400 times higher than regulatory limits, this naturally causes worry and sounds frightening. But the 20,000 pCi regulatory limit is specifically for drinking water and, as previously discussed, the site was specifically engineered and designed such that groundwater would be highly diluted to safe levels and would not flow into drinking water sources.
Media articles also quoted other safety related information, such as the fact that 317,000 people live within a 10-mile evacuation planning zone around the reactor [7]. This may bias the public toward thinking about catastrophic nuclear incidents, whereas, consequences of the tritium leak were insignificant from a human health or environmental perspective (but still required action to remedy).

Is Any Radiation Exposure Harmful?
One of the most common anti-nuclear arguments is that radiation is harmful at any dose. Radiation at small doses does cause limited small scale cellular damage, but the body has intricate repair mechanisms [4,5] and no long-term damage occurs. Cellular DNA can be damaged by metabolic byproducts like free radicals, and DNA copying errors are relatively frequent during cell division. “Cells have evolved a number of mechanisms to detect and repair the various types of damage that can occur to DNA, no matter whether this damage is caused by the environment or by errors in replication” [4]. We know that at low doses radiation does not produce health effects.

An example of a response to the Indian Point tritium link that focuses on the supposed danger of even a single radioactive atom is a citizens group called Shut Down Indian Point NOW!, which released the following flier to build support for a town hall meeting on the tritium leak:

Figure 3:  Flyer about shutting down Indian Point.  Obtained from the “Shut Down Indian Point! NOW! Network” Facebook Page

The flier highlights some of the misleading facts/statistics already discussed, but it also invokes images of at-risk infants and pregnant women. It further claims that the ingestion or inhalation of even a single molecule of a radioactive isotope can “cause cancer, birth defects, and mutation” — a clear case of inciting irrational fear. We continually breathe extremely low levels of radiation, such as radioactive Carbon-14 that forms the basis of carbon dating techniques. But atoms are incredibly tiny, so when we ingest or breathe extremely low concentrations of radioactive atoms we still ingest or breathe huge numbers of them!

An example is the potassium-rich banana. The average banana contains about 0.4 grams of potassium, and about 0.0117 percent of all potassium in the world consists of radioactive K-40 [10]. A single banana, therefore, contains 0.0000468 g of radioactive K-40 (0.4 g × 0.0117%). From basic chemistry, the molecular weight of potassium is 39 g/mol or 40 g/mol for K-40, and every mole contains 6.02 x 10^23 atoms (Avogadro’s number). Converting 0.000468 g of radioactive Potassium-40 to atoms, this is 7×10^17 (or 700,000,000,000,000,000) radioactive atoms ingested! From this, it should be clear that the ingestion of a single atom of a radioactive substance is not dangerous and will not cause mutations, cancer, etc.

Radiation is unseen, poorly understood by the public, and is the subject of much science fiction. Scientific knowledge and transparency surrounding topics of radiation can help alleviate public fears and help us as a society to focus our limited time and resources on issues with a high impact on human and environmental health. To use an analogy, if the tragedies in Flint, Michigan and Hoosick Falls, New York were as dangerous as charging rhinos, then the tritium leaks at Indian Point would be like a house fly – irritating, perhaps, but not a threat.

1. Entergy Statement on Comprehensive Groundwater Monitoring Program and Elevated Tritium at Indian Point,
2. Information on Groundwater Monitoring Program and Tritium at Indian Point,
3. Idaho State University Radiation Information Network Tritium Information Section,
4. Clancy, S. “DNA damage & repair: mechanisms for maintaining DNA integrity.” Nature Education 1.1 (2008): 103.
5. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Backgrounder on Biological Effects of Radiation.
6. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Backgrounder on Tritium, Radiation Protection Limits, and Drinking Water Standards.
7. CNN. Indian Point nuclear plant leak causes radioactivity in groundwater. Feb 6, 2016.
8. Reuters, Indian Point tritium leak 80% worse than originally reported. Feb 10, 2016.
9. Bill Kelly, Rockland Times Op-Ed. Former Entergy Manager says It’s Time to End Political Fear-Mongering about Indian Point. Feb 25, 2016.
10. Argonne National Laboratory. Human Health Fact Sheet, K-40. August 2005.

Healthcare Solutions from my friend, Dr. Sunny Aslam MD

My friend Dr. Sunny Aslam, MD is a psychiatrist who works primarily with low income patients and whose state-run hospital also serves the homeless.  He knows first-hand the weaknesses of our health care system dominated by private insurers.  The hospital he works at has an entire building full of staff dedicated to navigating the incredibly complex insurance system, filling out all the different forms that each of dozens of private insurance companies use, and fighting the insurance companies just to get paid.

He is active with two groups working to bring a much better system of healthcare that provides much better coverage and also costs less.  One is at the New York State level (Campaign for New York Health) and one is at the federal level with Physicians for a National Health Plan.

There is a bill at the NY State level that would eliminate private insurance company coverage and replace it with a single payer system.  This just means that doctors and hospitals would bill the State for medical services, instead of having to deal with dozens of different health insurance companies who want to deny care to people who need it and thereby make zillions of dollars.  The whole system would be funded by a payroll tax instead of paying extremely expensive insurance premiums.  This would save businesses and 98% of New Yorkers money.  Most of the money comes from payroll and investment taxes on the very rich, but everyone pays in at least a little (except for people making less than $25k a year).

We’re getting close to passing this New York Health Act in New York State.  All the Democratic State Senators support it.  The challenge is to convince Republican State Senators to support it.  With the support of just one Republican, a majority of State Senators would support it.  The Act would save businesses and people money, it would free counties from the portion of property taxes that go to pay Medicaid (property taxes are a big deal in Upstate New York), and it eliminates tons of waste – something Republicans all generally support.  A full study is available here.

To do this, organizing efforts are focusing on the districts where there are Republican State Senators, such as in the North Country and around the Watertown, NY area.  They are working to appeal to the sensibilities and concerns of people in these more rural areas with conservative ideas, including highlighting that President Trump promised he’d bring everyone better healthcare.

Here is a great letter to the editor Sunny wrote along these lines, focusing on media attention about how military veterans would lose important coverage under the Republicans’ American Health Care Act and how the NY Health Act would be much better.



‘Health bill seen hurting veterans’ (Watertown Daily Times, 5/7/17) is yet another reason why we need an improved Medicare for all system in our country. By tinkering around the edges of our broken health care system, we can’t move towards President Trump’s promises of comprehensive coverage for less money for all Americans.

There are 108 sponsors of HR 676 [federal legislation] which would create this universal, guaranteed coverage. Powerful insurance company interests oppose Medicare for all, because it would end their reign over American health care. Thus most politicians still oppose it as well, despite the potential savings to our state ($45 billion the first year implemented) and our nation (over $400 billion annually). These savings come from the unsustainable administrative costs of private health insurance.

We can act to cover all those who live in New York by supporting the NY Health Act. The plan would be more comprehensive than private insurance plans, covering all medically necessary services and prescriptions for New Yorkers. You pay based on income and there are no copays, or deductibles.

We can afford this by reducing administrative waste associated with private insurance companies, and negotiating fair drug and medical device prices. 98% of New Yorkers would pay less for health care.

The NY Health Act is a huge boost for New York businesses. It would lower payroll taxes and property taxes, which currently pay for Medicaid.  An estimated 200,000 jobs would be created because of decreased employer costs.  Plus no one gets stuck in “job lock” where a person has difficultly leaving a job they rely on for healthcare.

We need State Senator Ritchie on board as a sponsor. If you want excellent coverage for yourself and neighbors that doesn’t depend on your job, here is your chance to act.


Controversy over existing nuclear power in Central New York

This is an in-depth post about contested subsidies for nuclear power plants in Central New York.  A few prominent anti-nuclear groups are strongly working against these subsidies. At the moment, their strategy is to make an economic and taxation argument – that these subsidies cost too much, that it raises our electric bills, and is a bailout of “big business”.

My interest in this topic surrounds climate change, and about discourse based on facts with a minimum of spin and propaganda.  We need more transparency behind what we claim are facts, so people have enough information to judge for themselves.  In this spirit, I offer this work, deconstructing the argument that these subsidies are “bad” and providing links and information that anyone who wants to can follow.


There has been plenty of information and data in the reporting on the bailout or subsidies for Upstate nuclear plants, but the reporting is lacking context related to the role of hydrofracked natural gas (fracking), comparisons to the subsidies renewable energy receive, and longer term analysis of electricity prices.  This missing context is crucial to understanding impacts on climate change and to better understand the nature of anti-nuclear spin and propaganda.

Electricity Prices and Natural Gas
Let’s start with electricity pricing and prices.  The graph below helps us understand the history of electricity prices in New York State over the past 15 years (dark blue line) and how linked it is to the cost of natural gas (yellow line).  They are linked for a number of reasons but suffice it to say that the price of natural gas heavily influences the price of wholesale electricity.

As seen in the graph below, from 2000 to 2003 and about 2009 to 2013, the cost of electricity fluctuated around $55 per MegaWatt-hour (MWh), a unit of energy, seen in the light blue horizontal line.  This is an important number to remember.  The cost was significantly higher from about 2004 to 2008 ($65 to $95 per MWh).  Further, the graph doesn’t show month to month changes or swings which can be even larger.  For instance, residents of Central New York may remember that electric prices shot up in January and February of 2014 to about $160 per MWh due to high demand for natural gas in the winter.  This was just before fracking brought prices down to a historic, stable 15 year low for the rest of 2014, 2015 and onward.  (NYISO Power Trends 2016 – also the source for the graph below).  This price decrease occurred because of the start of fracking in Pennsylvania, with lots of cheap natural gas coming to New York State through pipelines.  The price of electricity has since stayed in the $40 to $45 per MWh range due continued fracking.

The effects of low electric prices due to fracking on nuclear power
The Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant in Scriba, NY (near Oswego) sells its electricity at the wholesale rate and needs a price of about $50 per MWh to break even and about $55 per MWh to make what’s considered a good profit.  For most of the last 15 years, therefore, Fitzpatrick was making a good profit and was doing extremely well in 2004 to 2008.  It’s only been struggling in the last couple of years because of the low $45 per MWh price caused by fracking.  Therefore, arguments about the high cost and expense of nuclear power related to Fitzpatrick simply don’t make sense.  Fitzpatrick is in trouble because of fracking, something environmentalists detest.

The new development of fracking, put Fitzpatrick in financial trouble and it was actually scheduled to close in January 2017, but for action by the State and Cuomo.  What a shame if the 600 employees of the plant would have lost their jobs, especially in a small town highly dependent on the economic benefits of the power plant.  Further, we know fracking is “boom and bust” – wells produce for only a few to several years – so natural gas prices are likely to go up within a few to several years in which case Fitzpatrick will be profitable on its own again, without any help or subsidies.

This explains the speed and nature of the subsidies put together to help Fitzpatrick.  To help justify the subsidies, it was also noted that nuclear energy produces very little CO2 or other greenhouse gas emissions: it doesn’t cause climate change and global warming like fossil fuels do.  Wind and solar energy receive subsidies because they don’t contribute to climate change, so why wouldn’t it be fair for nuclear to receive subsidies based on CO2 as well?  That’s how the thinking went.

As a result, the Public Service Commission suggested an initial subsidy of about $17.50 per MWh.  Based on the increasing costs of climate change over time, the PSC had the subsidy increasing gradually to as high as $29 per MWh within 11 to 12 years.  These subsidies are based on an assumed wholesale price of $39 per MWh, so the initial subsidy would mean the power plant gets a little over $55 per MWh, which is profitable.

Now the catch is that the subsidies also have a provision so if the cost of electricity goes up on its own, the subsidies will decrease by the same amount.  This makes sense and is very fair – the power plant will only get subsidies if it really needs them.  Due to the expected slowdown of fracking and for other reasons, the cost of electricity is expected to be back up to about $65 per MWh within 6 years.  When this happens, Fitzpatrick won’t be receiving any subsidies because it will be very profitable on its own (i.e. wholesale price of electricity is greater than the profitable value of $55 per MWh).

So why are people raising such a big stink about these subsidies, which are just a temporary measure?

Well, a big part of it is spin: these subsidies will cost taxpayers BILLIONS.

The cost of the subsidies, and comparisons to renewable energy subsidies

An average household will pay about $2 a month more in its electricity bill because of these subsidies.  That’s $24 a year, and when multiplied by the millions of people in New York State, that does in fact add up to BILLIONS of dollars.  But it’s still just 2 bucks a month.

Further, I haven’t seen any articles or reporting on this topic point out that hey, your electricity bills actually fell by about $2 a month because of fracking.  This subsidy therefore isn’t really increasing people’s overall electricity bills, it’s just restoring them by $2 to the level before fracking.  Because of this, arguments about the excessive cost of these subsidies really fall apart in my view.  Something else must be going on beneath them.

But before I get to that, let’s take a quick look at the subsidies that renewable energy require.  Wind energy has been growing in New York State, and this is a great thing.  Yet, wind energy is still reliant on subsidies, as seen in the following graph from the Union of Concerned Scientists.  The story is this: Congress has to re-approve subsidies for wind turbines every few years.  When these subsidies are in place, we start ramping up the number of wind turbines we build each year.  But then the subsidies are up for re-approval, and businesses just don’t know if they’ll be approved, so they don’t build as many turbines.  If the subsidies are approved, then it starts building up again from the low level and if they aren’t approved, then they fall even further.  You can see this in the graph below.

         Source: Union of Concerned Scientists.

How much do subsidies for renewable energy cost, and how do they compare to the nuclear subsidies?  Well, subsidies for wind and solar power in New York State have ranged from about $22 per MWh to $35 per MWh, for 20-year fixed terms.  The Fitzpatrick subsidies range from $17.50 to $29 per MWh, but go away if electricity prices go up.  Wind and solar subsidies stay in place.

So we actually pay a little bit more in subsidies for wind than for Fitzpatrick and within 6 years will likely pay no subsidies whatsoever for Fitzpatrick.  Not only that, but wind and solar receive federal subsidies as well, on top of the state subsidies.

Hang with me, I’ve got one more line of thinking and reasoning, then I’ll wrap up.

How much wind would power it take to replace Fitzpatrick?
Some groups such as the Alliance for a Green Economy (AGREE) argue that Fitzpatrick should be shut down and its energy replaced by renewables.  As an example, how much wind power in particular would it take to replace Fitzpatrick, how feasible is this, and how does this all look in the context of climate change?

The Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant produces 850 MW of power.  You might think that 850 MW of wind power would replace it, but it wouldn’t.  The catch is that the nuclear power plant produces this power basically around the clock, while wind turbines produce power only when the wind is blowing fast enough.  The concept that describes this is called the “capacity factor”.  Nuclear in NY State has a capacity factor of 94%, while wind has a capacity factor of 26%.  This means that nuclear power plants ran 94% of the entire year of 2015, while wind turbines spun only 26% of the entire year of 2015.  Therefore it takes the ratio of 94/26 = 3.6 times as many MegaWatts of wind power to get the same amount of electricity as 1 MW of nuclear power.  Therefore it will take 850 x 3.6 = 3060 MW of wind power to replace the electricity produced by Fitzpatrick.

Is 3060 MW of wind power a lot?  Let’s look at how much wind power all of New York State has.

NY State Wind Power Capacity Additions (MW).  The blue color shows the number of MW’s that were installed in each year, while the orange color keeps track of the cumulative or total number of wind MWs installed.  Source: US Department of Energy statistics

According to statistics from the US Department of Energy, from 1999 to 2014 a total of just under 1800 MW’s of wind power were installed in New York State.  Shutting down Fitzpatrick would lead to the loss of the equivalent of 3060 MW’s of wind energy, setting us back roughly 20 years of building wind turbines.   Basically, Fitzpatrick alone produces the amount of energy that all our wind turbines in the whole state plus 70% more produce!  So it is simply not true that the energy from the power plant could be quickly replaced by wind turbines.

Why not subsidize the nuclear power plant for the maybe 6 years it needs it, pay a couple of bucks a month, and also build lots of new wind and solar panels?  Why do some groups make it out to be either/or?  Climate change is a pressing concern.  Why do we need to go backwards on climate change by shutting down Fitzpatrick?

Wrapping up
I hope this piece has made it clear that our local nuclear power plant – and all the jobs and people it supports – is only in financial trouble because of hydrofracking.  Why would we let hydrofracking kill this nuclear power plant?  We all seem to agree we should pay a little more for renewable energy.  So why not pay just a little more to keep this plant open – 2 bucks a month for just 6 years, especially when our bills have gone down by the same amount anyway because of hydrofracking?  It blows my mind that the core argument against the nuclear subsidies implies an acceptance of the status quo with hydrofracking and the savings we get from it.

I can’t escape any other conclusion than that the arguments against the subsidy are really a front for being against nuclear power in general.  It only makes sense to be against these subsidies if you really want the plant to close, period, no matter what.  And why would we want a plant to close that provides so much of our electricity, jobs to a small town that desperately needs them, and that provides electricity with almost no greenhouse gas emissions?  We would only want that if we were absolutely convinced that nuclear energy – or at least this particular nuclear reactor – is unsafe, an imminent danger, or that it’s already caused loads of cancers in people.   We should instead be focused on ways to phase out fossil fuels.

The truth is that nuclear power in the United States is extremely safe and has an amazing safety record.  There have been only two major nuclear accidents around the world, yet there have been countless deaths caused by fossil fuels that far outstrip all the deaths caused by nuclear.  Further, fossil fuels have been causing climate change, which has already caused suffering and will only continue to cause more suffering in the future.   New nuclear reactors with advanced and passive safety systems promise even safer power.

I hope this has made a convincing case that all this talk about subsidies and taxpayer burdens and unfairness and “The Cuomo Tax” (check out the link) is all a front for people who want to shut down nuclear reactors at any cost, at any price…even at the price of the communities around them and the employees at the reactors.  So if you equate nuclear energy with the doomsday, then by all means, be against these subsidies.  But say what you really mean, and don’t hide behind all this talk about #StopTheCuomoTax.

My comments at a recent Town Hall Meeting in Syracuse, NY

Photo taken by Mark Rupert. Copied from WAER article linked to below.

A group called the Central New York (CNY) Solidarity Coalition arranged a town hall meeting on March 18 to let residents of our Congressional District speak and share on their concerns.  We hoped our Member of Congress, Rep. John Katko, would be there, but he wasn’t.  The event was hosted by our local public radio station, WAER, which wrote up this article about the event (including an audio summary).

Here’s what I said in the 2 minutes allotted to each person who wanted to speak.  This post serves as an intro of sorts to some posts I’ll write next on overcoming polarization, talking with Trump supporters, and looking at elements of gun control that aren’t helpful or useful.


My name is Ethan Bodnaruk and I’m a proud resident of Syracuse, in the NY 24th district.

I’m here because I’m deeply worried about the actions and rhetoric of the Trump administration.  Healthcare, the existence of climate change, immigrants and refugees, schools, the State Department, the EPA and others are under attack, being cut, or negatively impacted.

Representative Katko, we need you to be bold and brave and principled.  During the election you eventually spoke out against Trump the candidate and reacted to beingo n the same ballot as Trump by saying “that’s why God made Scotch”.  We need more of this from you, we need you to put the people you represent here first – above your party.

I think many everyday, ordinary people have many common interests and needs, but we’re divided by lies and propaganda.

There are ways we can work together to find solutions to the problems we face.  You’re doing and saying some good things – thank you, but we need more.

I’m a very liberal person, and I want to show I’ve got some skin in the game.  People on the Left need to do more to help diffuse the polarization, by being open to questioning our views, being self-critcial, having more empathy for others, and getting outside our bubble and echo chambers.

I’m an engineer and in a new position I spend a lot of time on construction sites with construction workers, many of whom enthusiastically voted for Trump.  When I talk to them and say the NY SAFE Act* doesn’t actually make us safer and isn’t tailored to the actual problems of gun control… When I say that many arguments against nuclear power ** are based on incorrect information about safety and radiation and are fear mongering, they do listen.  Then I can push back and say “No, Hillary didn’t want to take your guns.  That makes no sense!” “And no, Trump doesn’t care about everyday people, haven’t you heard of Trump University?”

So we can all do more, but Representative Katko, we need you to stand up for us and for democracy itself.

That’s me on the right, up next to speak!  Unfortunately, it looks like I’m sleeping.

*  As I’ll explore in my next post, the NY SAFE Act (a gun control law) does do some good things but it also has provisions that are unnecessary and don’t do anything to help make people safer.  I hear this a lot from people much more familiar with guns than I am.  Poor provisions fan the fires of polarization and fear that guns will be even further and pointlessly regulated.

**  I mentioned nuclear not only because I have some specialized knowledge in the field of nuclear engineering and there is a lot of fear mongering on the topic, but also because there’s a nuclear power plant in a small town here in Central New York that is the subject of much controversy over whether or not to keep it open.

Hedge funds and big barns

Just because I’m a superman nerd, why not use a picture of the Kent family barn from the TV show Smallville??

This is a quick summary and reflection on an excellent NPR piece about hedge funds and illegal insider trading.  Give it a listen!

The concept of hedging your investments is pretty common.  Don’t put all of your money into one type of investment.  Diversity is good: in case some types of investments do poorly, all your money won’t be lost.

Hedge funds came about as an investment for the ultra wealthy to hedge against downturns in the market.  They could give a bunch of money to financial firms who would have wide latititude over how to invest it.  They could rapidly make trades that were potentially risky but with high potential for reward, including short selling, which is basically betting on downturns in stocks.  These types of investments would come with high fees that the hedge fund managers collected for the very hands-on management, research, and networking that goes into it.  Financial regulators decided to approve hedge funds because only the super rich were contributing to them, and could afford the risk and potential losses.

Over time, these hedge funds were extremely successful, with some firms posting such astronomical results that many (including the FBI) started asking questions about inside information and other types of illegal trading.  It’s easy to imagine how the combination of big money and flexibility would encourage traders to gain inside information or at least blur the lines of it.  Hedge funds are now one of the largest types of financial investments, increasing volatility in the entire financial system.  Trading in huge amounts of money is now being performed based on tiny tidbits of information and day-to-day developments in news and sources coming out of corporations.  What are the effects of incredible amounts of wealth creation based on no tangible production of goods?  This has to trickle down and hurt the average person.

When I listened to this story, the thought occurred to me that these hedge funds are the modern day equivalent of Jesus’ parable of building bigger barns.  Why is it that the super rich seem to be obsessed with gathering even more wealth when they clearly have more than they could ever need?

Here’s the parable:
Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:13-21)

There’s a limit to how literally this can be taken, but it helps raise the questions of what is the point of our lives, and what should we do with excess money.

Religion as Pearls and Ashes

Finding the truly transformative aspects of religion isn’t this hard, but it does take a significant effort!

We humans have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize parts of our lives: to simultaneously hold conflicting sets of worldviews or perspectives.  This is useful because the world Is a complex place.  We need multiple tools and approaches for coping with life and pursuing wholeness.  But this kind of compartmentalization can be extremely frustrating when it comes to discussing and analyzing the relationship between, say, science and religion.  One example is Francis Collins, an atheist/agnostic turned Christian apologist, head of the National Institutes for Health, and a highly regarded scientist in the human genome project.

Collins is a prolific writer on science and religion, with titles like The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  But according to his own words, what ultimately resolved his search is that he was hiking and saw a really striking three-part waterfall.  It reminded him of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God = God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).  Boom, his searching, wondering, and struggle was done.  He was a Christian.

I’d never knock this story as forming part of someone’s spiritual journey.  I recognize he went through a long process of figuring out what he believes and why.  But if you’re then going to become an apologist and make it your point to argue in the public sphere why Christianity is right (and for him, implicitly why other religions are “wrong”) then that story really doesn’t cut it, especially running with the scientist angle!  I completely sympathize when atheists get flummoxed by such a subjective explanation of religious belief.

Some of my own views on religion align with those of two prominent personalities: Leo Tolstoy (not many seem to know he wrote extensively on religion!), and the American physicist Richard Feynman.  Tolstoy described religions using a metaphor – they are each like a sack containing pearls of infinite worth mixed up with and often hidden by a lot of ashes.  In other words, religion comes with its own baggage: all sorts of corruption, in-fighting, violence in the process of creating doctrine, hypocrisy, and forms of “idolatry” that infiltrate scriptures, such as nationalism, tribalism, and sexism.

My own journey resonates with this.  When I read that Jesus says to “knock and the door shall be opened to you” and “search and you shall find” I think of this metaphor.  It makes sense that there’s a lot of sifting and sorting to do.  There are pearls to find, but it’s an ongoing process, not a quick journey that’s over all at once.  Through a lot of searching over a decade or so (questioning my beliefs, exploring contemplative Christianity, living in a couple of monasteries, learning about other religions, being involved in interfaith groups), I came to see some of the pearls within Christianity, and to understand its limitations and the problem areas: the ashes.

During part of Richard Feynman’s career, he was a professor and mentor of graduate students.  Some of his students struggled the conflicts between their religious Christian upbringing and the science they were learning.  Feynman ultimately came to describe the challenge of the science vs. religion debate as one of being able to distinguish and preserve the wonderful moral teachings and inspiration of religion while being able to challenge specific worldviews or claims about objective, scientific reality that they make.  I think this is an especially important point for prominent atheists to engage in.  I think much more progress will be made extending the conversation to the pearls of religion and the many internal tools and teachings they contain to weed out the good from the bad and point to the dangers of hypocrisy and power.  Many atheists are motivated by a humanist desire to decrease suffering related to religious belief, so this could be a fertile ground of exploration.

I believe Sam Harris, despite my disagreements with him on some topics, is one of these.  I love his metaphor of the Moral Landscape, in which he envisions a 3-D map with many different peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to different ways of human flourishing and the valleys correspond to the many ways we can make ourselves and others suffer.  He could contribute to the transformation of religion by focusing more on the peaks of well-being specifically within religious traditions.

As Feynman’s viewpoint alludes to, religion often makes claims about the world or universe that it isn’t qualified to and doesn’t need to make such as the idea that Earth is the center of universe, back in Galileo’s day.  That was (taken to be) an important theological idea then, but come on, it’s not actually essential to Christianity.  Something similar today happens over topics like evolution.

My own experience in the interfaith group Religions for Peace, exposure to monastic interfaith religious dialogue, and love for food has led me to my own metaphor.  Each religion (with exceptions like Scientism) is like a culinary tradition from a nation or region of the world.  Each has many things beautiful, tasty, and wonderful to offer.  While foods are clearly different across the world, they are also the same in many fundamental ways (nutrition, chemistry, aesthetics and creative pursuits, etc) as well.

Each cuisine of the world also has its own types of junk food.  I think the discourse on religion, science, atheism, and ethics will improve as we increasingly recognize that the world’s religions have tremendous and wonderful commonalities, and when we are also keenly aware of and open to talking about their limitations – most especially the ways that they can be and are used (or abused/warped) in ways that cause tremendous pain and suffering.  It’s especially important to have a deep understanding of a religion in order to understand if negative actions or beliefs ascribed to the religion are an integral part of it or are instead a parasite, addition, or perversion of the original teachings and spirit of the religion.

On its own, I recognize that many people will find my food metaphor too simple.  I look forward to getting into more depth on all of this!

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions!

The devil at work in the climate change “debate”?

A wolf in sheep’s clothing: another metaphor or image of Satan, the father of lies

A couple of weeks ago, my city’s newspaper, the Post-Standard, published an article framing climate change as a debate, with side-by-side columns arguing climate change is real and is not real.  This article was nationally syndicated: sent to newspapers across the country for publishing.  Much of the media has rejected the so-called “equal time” policy giving both sides of an argument a voice when one is simply false.  But not the Post-Standard, apparently.  A few letters to the editor were published expressing displeasure with this action, and I decided to write one from a religious angle.  It didn’t get published, so I’m sharing it here. It’s a bit of an unusual approach, but I think it’s accurate and important to say.

To the Editor:

As an environmental engineer, person of faith, and Coordinator of the interfaith Religions for Peace International Youth Committee, I am shocked and dismayed that the Post-Standard published a prominent article giving credence to the view that human actions – most notably burning of fossil fuels – are not causing climate change. (Should Congress defy Trump and move quickly on climate change,” February 5). This is a truly Satanic – yes Satanic – action by both the author William Happer and the Post-Standard.

Although I don’t believe Satan is a literal being, the concept is nonetheless powerful and profound. Satan is the father of lies, a master deceiver who parades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).  The article in question pits a mere “progressive commentator” who argues climate change is real versus William Happer, an emeritus physics professor who is knowingly or unknowingly acting as a mouthpiece of the devil.  By the contrast of credentials, the article wants us to believe that Happer is an “angel” representing science, knowledge, and truth while the progressive commentator is wrong and climate change is a lie.  We must see past this devilish deception.

We have known since the 1860s (John Tyndall) that CO2 traps heat from sunlight.  In the 1980s, simple calculations by scientists showed that humanity’s fossil fuel use would lead to higher CO2 levels than the Earth has experienced in hundreds of thousands of years, and was increasing at a rate thousands of times faster than natural change.

All people of good will, of all religions and no religion, must resist lies denying climate change.  Further, we need to demand practical and bi-partisan solutions that will also help the economy, such as a revenue neutral carbon fee and dividend.

Counting the cost, climate change, and carbon fees (Part 2 of 2)

Source: (also a good article!)

Source: (also a good article!)

Today humanity faces the threat of global climate change based on our use of fossil fuels. At first we didn’t know their use would have such negative consequences or costs. It generally seemed that they were great and amazing, and some thought of fossil fuels as a gift from God. Governments subsidized their extraction and use because it makes sense to encourage good things. We flourished, expanded, and got used to spread out cities, long commutes, and long-distance travel enabled by cheap fossil fuels.

But now we know that fossil fuels are causing climate change that will increasingly affect us all, but especially the poor, vulnerable, and those living on coasts.

We know that fossil fuels have a significant and increasing cost. But we don’t actually count their costs in a meaningful way, within the framework in which so many of our decisions are made everyday: the economy. So we continue to make bad decisions like the tower builder in Jesus’ parable. Even when we subsidize renewable energy, our fossil fuel infrastructure and subsidies for fossil fuels are still there. Fossil fuels stay cheap despite their huge cost.

Our failure to count the cost of fossil fuels in a real and meaningful way will only ensure that we continue to use them. If it’s more profitable to use fossil fuels than other sources, or it’s still profitable to use a significant proportion of them in our energy mix, we’re in trouble.

A fundamental “counting the cost” solution is a carbon fee. If we make fossil fuels more expensive proportional to the amount of emissions they release, we will count the cost of fossil fuels in the way the world works: money. If it becomes clear that the nations are making all fossil fuels more expensive (not just picking and choosing certain types), businesses, entrepreneurs, researchers, investors in power plants, and every day people will have a major incentive to implement and further develop alternatives to fossil fuels.

If we start the carbon fee low, it won’t be a big shock to the system. If we make the carbon fee increase every year, then this is predictable and transparent, incentivizing the whole world to start planning now in a meaningful and realistic way to transition away from fossil fuels within the next couple of decades.  The fee would be paid by the corporations that extract fossil fuels or import them into our country.  This is simple, easy to manage, and avoids the complication of determining each person’s carbon footprint.

This type of fee wouldn’t shut down any power plants tomorrow (easing the worry of lost jobs and shocks to families). But you better bet that we’ll stop building new fossil fuel power plants in a hurry because business people would see that fossil fuel profits will decrease every year and eventually become zero. In the US in 2015, electricity from new power plants was about 68% from natural gas, 26% from wind, and 6% from solar. This is still too much fossil fuels, especially since a good chunk of the natural gas comes from hydrofracking which has major methane leakage issues.

Finally, the carbon fee should be revenue neutral, which means that the government does not keep and spend the money raised. Instead, the money is returned evenly to US households. This does two things: first, it ensures that the poor and middle class aren’t burdened by the fee since price increases of fossil fuels and products based on them or their energy would occur.  Importantly, because of the refund or dividend, the poor would make money overall and on average the middle class would break even.  People would also be incentivized to reduce their use of fossil fuels, in which case a larger portion of their carbon refund is profit.

Second, a revenue neutrality (the refund or dividend) makes the carbon fee much more politically feasible in the United States: the economy would grow from investment in alternative energy and from increased spending due to the dividend. Further, revenue neutrality is attractive to conservatives since it’s a market based solution and not an actual tax or regulation. If the United States can lead on this, and show that it is beneficial, then other countries will follow!  France and Victoria, British Columbia (Canada) have implemented very similar proposals to great success.

Jesus’ parable about counting the costs simply makes sense.  If we don’t count the cost of our actions it’s far too easy to make bad decisions and be unprepared.  This is a spiritual and moral matter.  Will we find ways to make our systems reflect the reality of the growing costs of fossil fuels?  Are we serious about root cause solutions to get off of fossil fuels?  Are we serious about the real impacts of climate change to people all around the world?

Any questions on this so far? There’s a lot of information here, and I remember when I first heard about carbon fees I had a ton of questions. I’ll follow up with further posts going into more details about how it would work, and common questions. But in the meantime if you want to do your own research, a good place to start is Citizens’ Climate Lobby or the Carbon Tax Center.

Counting the cost, climate change, and carbon fees (Part 1 of 2)

Record breaking global temperatures for 2015 as reported by NASA. Source:

Record breaking global temperatures for 2015 as reported by NASA. Source:

In this 2-part post, I’ll give some background and reflection on one of Jesus’ parables and in the next post I’ll tie it in to the topic of climate change.

Jesus told a parable about counting the cost:

A king is thinking about going to war with another country. You better bet the king will send some scouts or spies to figure out how big the other army is. Do his forces even have a chance? If not, the costs are far too high and he’d be foolish to wage war.

A builder wants to build a tower. A competent builder would sit down and figure out how much it costs to build the tower, and only build it if he can afford it. Otherwise, the builder will run out of money, the tower will only be partially built, and people will see it and laugh.

Counting the cost is simply good common sense. It helps you make good decisions.

Without counting the cost you might honestly not know how to choose between 2 options. If you’re already leaning toward the bad option and you don’t count the cost, you’ll probably pick the wrong choice!

Being a follower of Jesus back during his day wasn’t easy. He had an alternative view of how human relations should work, one based on love, forgiveness, and justice. He used an analogy of a godly kingdom founded on these values, one that was blasphemous to the actual kingdoms of his day because those kingdoms were founded (partly? mostly?) on power and oppression. Even more, kings justified their power and authority by claiming it was from God. As a result, they couldn’t stomach any competing kingdom or authority within their own kingdom. Jesus’ view of a godly kingdom was also blasphemous to those who insisted that religious rules were more important than love, or who coveted their religious leadership mainly because of the power it gave them over others.

The movement Jesus started was difficult, and dangerous. Friends might stop being your friend. Family might disown you. Religious or state authorities might kill or imprison you.

But there were also perks: a new way of life, a deep sense of peace and purpose, and forging bonds of friendship and new family deeper than blood.

Today, Christianity is generally an accepted part of our culture. It’s often associated with privilege, respect, or power. I personally believe that institutional Christianity has forgotten, ignores, or explains away many of the deepest, most profound, and most difficult of Jesus’ teachings, especially those on power, violence, justice, and self-giving love.

But getting back to Jesus’ time and the original context of the parable, counting the costs of discipleship.  Being aware of the costs – acknowledging and facing them – was actually better than ignoring them. By counting the cost in advance, a potential follower of Jesus could decide if the path was really worth it. When or if suffering came later on they would be ready and could accept it.

Stay tuned for next time, when I apply this to our current challenge of climate change and weaning ourselves from fossil fuels.