Energy Policy in Harmony with the Laws of Thermodynamics

by Dan Watkiss

Both houses of Congress recently passed energy bills: H.R. 3221 in the House and H.R. 6 (an amended House bill) in the Senate. Differences between them will make for a contentious conference. A White House veto threat directed to the House bill could further dim prospects for new directions in energy policy. But as both the Senate and House bills would increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions of global-warming greenhouse gases, one can only hope that the conferees find common cause and the White House is overridden.

As a standard for evaluating the ingredients likely to make their way into any final sausage, I consulted two texts: Amory Lovins’ 1976 classic “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken,” which identifies energy options then advocates a “soft path,” and Mark Eberhart’s 2007 polymathic treatise “Feeding the Fire,” which prescribes a “thinking man’s energy diet.” Both draw from thermodynamics-the First Law that energy is neither created nor destroyed but conserved; the Second Law (articulated here by Lord Kelvin) that heat cannot be converted completely into work since some thermal energy (unlike kinetic or potential energy) must be lost to entropy.

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Ignorance of these laws, according to Lovins and Eberhart, perpetuates a history of “hard,” inflexible (Lovins) and “wishful” but unrealistic (Eberhart) energy policies. Lovins points to energy policy that encourages or does not penalize uses of high-quality energy-premium fuels and electricity-for non-premium work such as lighting, waterworks and temperature control that should be performed with significantly less expenditure and waste of concentrated energy. “Where we want only to create temperature differences of tens of degrees, we should meet the need with sources [of energy] whose potential is tens or hundreds of degrees, not with a flame temperature of thousands [coal, oil and natural gas] or a nuclear temperature of millions,” wrote Lovins, aptly depicting it as “cutting butter with a chainsaw.”

For his example, Eberhart points to President George W. Bush’s claim in his 2004 State of the Union that hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars “will make our air significantly cleaner and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of oil,” ignoring the First Law of Thermodynamics-hydrogen must itself be created using other fuels, fuels that pollute and probably have some degree of foreign dependence. In other words, President Bush is wishful, but apparently clueless, that the Second Law prevents perpetual motion machines.

Where then would an energy policy based on thermodynamic laws lead us? Is Congress going in that direction? The answer to this second question potentially is “yes,” at least more so than earlier national energy policies. According to Lovins and Eberhart, a thermodynamically sound energy policy would rely increasingly on those forms of energy that work directly, minimizing entropy, such as wind and water, with minimum or no production of greenhouse gases. It would also tap ambient thermal energy from the sun, particularly photovoltaics suited to applications including lighting, waterworks and temperature control. The House bill’s renewable electricity standard tends in this direction by requiring electric utilities (other than munis and co-ops) to obtain 15 percent of their power supplies from renewable resources by 2020. The Senate, in contrast, prescribes no level of generation from renewable sources.

Thermal energy would increasingly be viewed as transitional to increased reliance on forms of kinetic and potential energy and its objective would be to do the greatest amount of work with the least generation of heat. Fuels of choice would be coal, bio-fuels and, in the case of Eberhart, a standardized fleet of nuclear reactors. Thermodynamic energy policy would support technological innovation in the efficient use of each of these fuels. Integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) generators offer the most thermally efficient and cleanest uses of coal. These generators create a low-carbon/high-hydrogen fuel that can be used to power motors and turbines, leaving CO2 to be pumped to underground storage or otherwise sequestered. While neither the Senate nor the House bill provides sufficient support for IGCC, both call for an assessment of areas for underground CO2 storage and demonstration projects.

A thermodynamic energy policy would surely reverse the massive subsidies currently lavished on the bio-fuel ethanol derived from corn. Political proponents of corn-derived ethanol tout it as a path toward energy independence, which it may be, but it also offends the First Law by ignoring all of the energy that goes into planting, fertilizing, controlling pests, harvesting, transporting and distilling. Most studies show that more energy goes into producing ethanol from corn than comes out as ethanol. Corn ethanol subsidies would be better spent on producing ethanol from cellulose, such as native switchgrass, and industrial and municipal waste. These convert more stored solar energy into ethanol, with less waste, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Both bills provide modest incentives for developing cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel.

Lovins and Eberhart diverge on nuclear energy. Lovins, writing in 1976, before the March 1979 core meltdown at Three Mile Island and the April 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, opposed nuclear for numerous reasons, but primarily because of the ever-present risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons. Eberhart, writing 30 years later after both mishaps, acknowledges the operational and political dangers of nuclear energy and proliferation, but comes to a different conclusion. Instead, he points to the experience of the world’s largest nuclear operator, the United States Navy, which has operated nuclear-powered submarines and ships since 1955. It currently operates 80 ship-based reactors, and has 5,400 reactor years of accident-free experience. Rather than dispense with nuclear power, Eberhart sees it as an indispensable part of the energy mix, free of greenhouse gas emissions, and recommends that its development be entrusted to a government-industry collaborative (following the Navy model) that would standardize reactor design and set long-term goals for its implementation. The pending bills neither reject nor promote nuclear energy, other than the Senate bill’s proposed expansion of the scope of liability insurance available to U.S. nuclear operators.

Lastly, Eberhart in particular advocates phasing out internal combustion engines. Because of the Second Law, these engines waste as heat most of the energy they consume. On average, our automobile engines achieve an abysmal 20 percent to 25 percent efficiency. Electric motors are capable of achieving far greater efficiencies, particularly if the electricity is generated from the direct or ambient thermal sources discussed above. The Senate bill takes a tardy step in this direction; it would increase by approximately 40 percent corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards for cars and trucks. The House contains no parallel measure, but would fund research into high-efficiency batteries for electric-motor vehicles and offer a $4,000 tax credit for motorists who buy them. Real progress on vehicular efficiency will likely have to await Congress crafting a compromise on reducing CO2 emissions. That compromise will allocate mandatory reductions between coal-fired electric utilities and the auto industry. Both sectors can flex mighty political muscle, and neither is likely to make concessions without the other doing the same.

While both bills fall short of an energy policy in harmony with the laws of thermodynamics, some combination of them, if enacted, could make a meaningful start, with the House bill’s renewable energy standard and the Senate’s increased CAFE standards holding particular promise.


Dan Watkiss is a partner with Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington, D.C., representing power companies, exploration and production and mid-market companies, natural gas pipelines, power and liquefied natural gas project developers and lenders, as well as government agencies and regulators. Contact Dan at

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