The Evolution of The Intersection

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 5, 2010 9:31 am

It has been brought to my attention that a number of readers and science bloggers seem to be wondering if Monday’s post means I am retiring from the blogosphere. I’m not, but am glad to see that reflection on the devolving state of science blogs–and their tendency to be more sport and spectacle than science–seems to have resonated broadly with over 400 comments and counting. I will have more to say on science blogging shortly, but first a few words on why I’m posting less frequently…

Picture 6Foremost, blogging should not be a daily requirement. For me, it began in 2006 when I lost a bet with students–as Cornelia Dean explained in her terrific book. I found I enjoyed the interactive exchange and the way it helped me to make sense of all of the endless ideas spinning around in my head everyday. But a good blog post is the result of inspiration, and over time it started to feel like homework. I’d work a full day at Duke, or edit my book for hours, and scramble for something to get on the blog as an afterthought. Blogging stopped feeling cathartic and became more burdensome while juggling work, travel, talks, some semblance of a social life, and wedding planning. So I’ve decided it’s time to change the way I contribute. From now on, I’ll write only when inspired. This may happen a few times a week or a few times a day. We’ll see how it goes.

And more importantly, I’m busier than usual this month because David and I are headed to Austin, Texas! I’ll be very sad to leave the incredible Pimm Group at Duke, but I’m also so excited about what’s coming next! While I’ll always stay connected to the marine realm, there’s another crucial area I’ve been growing more and more interested to pursue and there’s no better place to do so than Texas. So here’s the big–related–announcement:

The Intersection is about to become an energy blog. I’ll have more to say on that soon so keep watching… you ain’t seen nothing yet!


Comments (29)

  1. Alexa

    Austin is such a cool city!

  2. Have fun in Austin! We will miss you here in Durham.

  3. Jon

    Austin is the place to go if you’re interested in the latest in energy. Best of luck! Looking forward to what’s coming next.

  4. Jean Kazez

    Sheril, Welcome to Texas. You’re going to love Austin (I used to live there, then got exiled north to Dallas). As to the politics here–on my. Try to laugh a lot. It helps. I know what you mean about blogging. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

  5. Guy

    I’m looking forward to reading some of your inspired posts.

  6. I look forward to the energy coverage, a topic I’m personally very interested in.

  7. Great. That’s exactly what I was talking about in the past post. Good luck with the new phase of your life.

  8. Sili

    I think you would better to judge success by the quality of comments, rather than shear number.

    (It would be unkind of me to suggest you’d indeed spent more time on your book than on blogging – not least since I’m not sure this is the your(pl) book or something else.)

    But bonne chance! with your career!

  9. Can’t wait to have you here, Sheril!

  10. sounds like a good way to go. a few years back i didn’t post for a week and a half, and someone commented “i’m very disappointed in this blog, there’s no content.” all i could say was f**k you dude :-)

    at least for me it is interesting though that whenever i go through a fallow period invariably a new paper pops up, and the engine cranks on….

  11. J.J.E.

    That intersection picture you chose almost couldn’t be further from Austin. (It looks like that picture is pretty far west, near Fort Stockton.) A picture of I-35 threading through the Hill Country near Austin would have been much closer to home.

  12. @11 J.J.E,
    I took that photo on the last road trip out to Texas.

  13. Busiturtle


    This New York Times article provides an excellent foundation for understanding the complexities of “green” energy solutions. It must be appreciated that the challenge of replacing carbon based energy only exist because of the artificial, man-made decision to certify carbon-dioxide as a pollutant. Our nation has an abundant natural supply of coal and natural gas and we have the expertise to cleanly burn these fuels.

    “We’d love to tell you that solar power is as economic as fossil fuels, but the reality is that it is not,” Lewis Hay III, FPL’s chairman and chief executive, said on a recent tour of the plant.

    Part of the challenge in increasing the share of renewable energy sources is to make up for their variable nature — at night, for example, or when the wind does not blow. Because electricity cannot be stored easily, utilities must always produce enough power to meet electric demand at any given time. In practice, this means they need keep a lot of idle plants that can be fired up rapidly when demand spikes.

    Spain, which generates more than 12 percent of its electricity from wind, has struggled with wind variability, Mr. Lave said. Similar problems are also cropping up in the United States, especially in states where solar and wind power are on the rise. In 2008, for example, Texas narrowly avoided a blackout when wind power, which supplied 5 percent of demand at the time, experienced an unexpected lull, driving wind electricity generation down to 350 megawatts, from 2,000 megawatts, in less than four hours, according to Mr. Lave.

  14. Guy

    It should be interesting to read more about future energy solutions. I think one key component will be in reducing the manufacturing cost of wind mills and solar panels. Once it becomes cheap enough more people will opt for having solar panel on their rooftops and windmills in their yards. Large scale renewable production should also come down greatly in price. I have also heard there is a idea to use the batteries in a fleet of plug-in hybrids for storing energy to use during peak periods. Most cars are parked 23 out of 24 hours per day so just keep them plugged into the grid and allow the grid to tap into the battery when needed. You might even get paid something for it to get a return on the investment. I have no doubt that our energy future will be more “green” that it is now. It’s just a matter of how long fossil fuel Luddites can try to delay it so they can fill their coffers a bit more at the cost of the environment.

  15. J.J.E.

    @12 Sheril

    I made that trip in 2000 (Houston to Tucson). Beautiful. Some stretches of road had 75 miles between gas stations.

    Just a tad north of I-10 in that general vicinity is Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I took a trip there on the way back. A nice half-day hike to the peak.

    Hope you enjoy Texas! Make sure you explore a few small towns…

  16. Busiturtle

    Guy @ 14:” It’s just a matter of how long fossil fuel Luddites can try to delay it”

    I assume these type of comments are made out of political frustration because rational economics proves they are utterly false. A parallel comment would be to have said in 1996 that modem manufacturers were delaying the rollout of broadband internet services. Broadband internet became the preferred internet access solution when the cost of the service made it a better value than dial-up. No company and in fact no industry can prevent the adoption of superior products. Economic rationality is that powerful.

    Frankly I view windmills technology as a niche solution that has been vastly overhyped. There is no need to rehash the many of the liabilities of windmills but I am surprised how few people recognize that windmills are the 21st century version of hydropower. Hydropower was the bees knees in the 20th century. Now many environmentalists wish many dams had never been built. The same will happen with windmill farms. They are a huge blight on the world’s landscape.

    Solar has much greater potential although current solar technologies fall far short of where they need to be.

    One other consideration. Did the futurists of 1890 comprehend the technologies that would be available in 1940? Subsidizing dead-end technologies is a poor way to invest money, private or public. Yet that appears to be what is happening with the solar and wind subsidies that are currently in play.

  17. “No company and in fact no industry can prevent the adoption of superior products. Economic rationality is that powerful.”

    Sounds like someone needs to do some research into Monopoly powers. I suggest starting with AT&T and Microsoft.

  18. ThomasL


    I strongly suggest you study more about wind before you make such claims (I’ve yet to see anything indicating the cost of producing wind towers will in any way become
    “cheaper”…). I’ve previously posted links to the studies done in Spain and Denmark. I would also suggest reading Germany’s experiences written up in Der Spiegel. I’m also speaking as one who actually has contracts, and there are some huge issues that are not much talked about, and not something I’m going to try to explain on a blog post. While it’s nice that my family is likely to make quite a bit from it all, the fact is it isn’t such a great deal for everyone else.

    But, to give you an idea of just how swell it is all working out, here are some things to ponder… read the reports for a more in depth look.

    Denmark currently has over 6,000 turbines. They generate about 19% of its electricity. Still, they have yet to close a single fossil-fuel plant. Due to wind’s unpredictability it has actually required an increase in coal-generated electricity to cover the drop offs. As a result pollution and carbon dioxide emissions have actually risen (by 36% in 2006 alone).

    In Germany we are told by Der Spiegel that “Germany’s CO2 emissions haven’t been reduced by even a single gram, and additional coal- and gas-fired plants have been constructed to ensure reliable delivery.” Sounds a lot like what has happened in Denmark…

    As far as “green jobs” goes, we learn from the study done on Spain that “for every job created by state-funded support of renewables, particularly wind energy, 2.2 jobs are lost. Each wind industry job created cost almost $2-million in subsidies.” Seeing as we are just rolling in cash I can see how that is fundable…

    And Brad, while that sounds all nice, the fact is Busiturtle actually is much more on target than you pretend.

    According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration as reported in 2008, on a dollar per MWh basis, the U.S. government subsidizes wind at $23.34. That’s just a ridiculous cost (as I stated above, we’ll be well paid – but I don’t think anyone else is going to be happy…). to give you an idea of just how expensive that is you can compare it traditional and actually reliable (see above) energy sources, from cheapest to most expensive: natural gas at 25¢; coal at 44¢; hydro at 67¢; and nuclear – the one we are all told is oh so expensive (and it is, – it also has the same issues as many of the alternatives – can’t just be turned on and off as needed and thus will never really be more than about 20% of the market – for those who don’t know, 20% of full load tends to be the regular overnight load…) at $1.59. As the Wall Street Journal puts it: “wind generation is the prime example of what can go wrong when the government decides to pick winners.”

    I’m really beginning to wonder if facts ever are part of any discussions in all this, or if everyone is too busy listening to the activist’s claims of utopia just around the corner…

  19. Guy

    Sounds like a few people need to read up on concept of externalities. If we don’t switch to clean & renewable energy in time to prevent catastrophic warming the external cost of producing energy will make all the subsidies going to wind and solar seem trivial.

    No one is claiming that wind alone is some sort of Utopian panacea as an energy solution. Instead its part of a growing portfolio of clean & renewable energy generation. I’d much rather see my tax dollars go towards subsidies for wind & solar than for coal and oil.

  20. Gus Snarp

    There’s a lot of oversimplification going on in these comments (as is the nature of blog comments) but just for the record, burning coal isn’t the only place that the use of coal creates pollution (see an earlier post on the Intersection regarding mountain top removal coal mining), and the notion that we have magically cleaned up coal based power plants or even can, is a myth. The burning of coal still produces the same pollutants, we’re just grabbing them and storing them differently. It’s better than the old way, but the stored pollutants still have to be handled. Long term this can be an issue. Even nuclear power still produces serious economic effects from mining and long term storage of waste products. All of these environmental impacts are left out of cost calculations because the government tends to allow the pollution to not be cleaned up or ends up bearing a lot of the cost (in other words, passing it on to the taxpayers). When fossil fuel companies are responsible for maintaining clean water for residents in mining areas as well as cleaning up other ecological damage, then we’ll start to see costs be more comparable (it’s not just carbon).

    There’s no doubt that reliability is a real problem with wind and solar, and for the short term fossil sources will remain in the portfolio, but Guy is right that utilities are doing serious research into using plug in vehicles as batteries to shift demand peaks, and other storage solutions are also in development. Distributed solar panels and windmills are likely not the final solution any time soon, but they should be a piece of the puzzle and while windmill costs may not change much (they will come down some the more widespread they become, that’s true of any technology) solar panel costs per watt will drop more as the technology improves. Concentrated solar plants are another matter altogether in terms of costs and with improved storage technology such as using a heated salt for energy storage will become part of a cost effective solution even though they are limited by the need for transmission grid investment.

  21. Jon

    Also, ThomasL doesn’t mention any of the ways to achieve efficiencies and deal with the variability of solar and wind:

    I think what ThomasL says is misleading. Most likely Denmark has *reduced* its consumption of fossil fuels, but hasn’t shut any of its fossil burning plants down, because they are still needed for peak consumption.

    If Denmark had pumped hydro (like Steven Chu mentions in the above piece I linked to) it probably *could* shut some of those plants down…

  22. ThomasL


    Here are the links to the two major reports. They aren’t short, but they don’t paint a very pretty picture of success. Other news sources have stated that Denmark and Spain were hoping to offset some of their expenses by selling stuff to us, and as pointed out previously construction for a substantial number of the “green” alternatives involve rare earth minerals -> which leads to mining in some pretty ecologically sensitive areas and China owns somewhere north of 80% of all current mines to boot (and they are limiting exports…). and Sorry, don’t have the link to the Der Spiegel article anymore, but I would think a little googling will find it pretty quick.

    Hopefully when Chris and Sheril start blogging more on the energy situation they will take each one and do it more justice than simple feel good spinning.

    Guy, reading up on externalities is a two way thing. I’d advise reading up on them in regards to economic disruption and how such affects the social order. Then start really looking into the financial state of the U.S. and our ability to pay for a massive rework of our basic infrastructure at this time (and while I do think such needs to be done, it isn’t going to happen very fast). Hint, take a real close look at the situation going on with the states, and then start thinking about the federal level and what happens when we pay more interest to deal with these levels of debt in the future… along with the boomers retirement (the largest generation, and one that never saved squat…). This time is not different, and there are historical precedents for what is going on. Most haven’t ended very well.

    Most those who know me know I was very vocal about the crap our government chose to spend all the money on. I would have been much happier if it had gone into beginning the process of rebuilding the electric grid. Unfortunately they didn’t, and now that they have spent it all (extending and pretending and fixing nothing), being able to spend enough to make meaningful progress in that area is rather questionable. Again, why everyone thinks the government is the answer is beyond me. This is just the latest example of how well they mismanage everything (and that doesn’t mean we don’t need a government, but central planning has shown itself to be a colossal failure).

    Gus, I agree that many of these technologies may, over time, be parts of an overall solution. But don’t kid yourself about mining just being an issue with Coal. Mining is an issue with almost everything. Don’t forget about waste either – think of how many problems batteries are already causing… As you point out, things tend to be simplified in these threads, but the pollution issues and disposal issues do not end with fossil fuels (part of what I was pointing at in my comments about long term issues of wind).

    Jon, it’s not just peak usage that causes the plants to not be shut down, but also the huge variability involved. For example, the windmills Iberdrola renewables is looking at for us uses an estimate of 30% of the “wind hours” available as actually being producible – as in 70% is missed for numerous reasons. There is also quite a bit more than just putting them up involved, they have to build access roads to each of them and run cable for the power as well. Then there is the issue of the infrastructure to handle the load…

    Over time many of these ideas may prove themselves to be viable, but they all also have serious issues that still need to be worked out, including the economic issues. Rebuilding the energy infrastructure we currently have is both involved and very expensive. While hopefully over time we will make progress, this is not the only financial issue facing us, and unfortunately the “boomers” -> the original “me” generation, has not left us in a very tenable situation and our power issue is but one of many.

  23. Jon

    Jon, it’s not just peak usage that causes the plants to not be shut down, but also the huge variability involved.

    I suspect your employer pays you for the amount of pro-status quo propaganda you churn out, but maybe you could spend some time reading the articles that I link to, like the one above, which addresses this issue.

  24. ThomasL


    I’m my employer, so not sure how I would go about paying myself for anything I put up in here. We own a farm, a law firm (wife) and a computer support company (mine) and have been “self employed” for well over fifteen years now. I’d suggest you get out in the world and discover how things actually function instead of constantly pointing me to opinion peices.

    Again, I suggest you read the real research reports.

    I’m glad Chu has a “vision”, but I am actually dealing with the right here and now realities of it. Seeing as I am actually dealing with it, talking to and under contract with a company that actually puts the things up and have gone to the power companies meetings over placement of the new transmission lines (one possible plan has them running through part of our farm) to deal with the already overloaded lines I do have some idea what I’m talking about, and it isn’t “theoretical”.

    Yes, “pumped hydro” sounds great. I’d suggest you read more than this article however if you want to understand some of the glossed over issues (and “billions of dollars” is an interesting estimate…). I told you what our contract actually states. They expect to be able to produce 30% of total wind hours during the course of the yearper tower. We would absolutely love for it to be more as we get paid per hour generated, but when the company putting them in and running them that already has numerous wind farms in production gives you a number I would think it advisable to take their word for it as they do know what they are doing.

  25. ThomasL

    And Jon,

    How you could ever get I have any faith in the “status quo” surviving the next few years from anything I have said is a bit beyond me. While I doubt we are going to economically afford to make much progress in restructuring our energy infrastructure it is not because I think the status quo is going to survive, but rather because we’ve chosen (actually the boomers chose for all of us) to push ourselves far past any economically feasible equilibrium. We are broke to the point where the likely hood of being able to pay for the promises made to those retiring are actually farcical.

    Unfortunately those whose retirement promises we have no honest way to pay for are also a rather large, meaningful voting bloc. Once you have taken the time to study our true economic situation, let me know how you think we are going to pay for all of what we already have the check coming due for, let alone billions more to rebuild our electrical infrastructure and replace all our power plants. I’ve told you before, I am a realist and deal with the world as is and fully recognize all the issues in play.

    Status quo? Good luck even maintaining that.

  26. Michael Kingsford Gray

    Be sure to visit the Atheist Community of Austin!
    I’m sure that they would love to do an interview with you.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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