Monday, August 20, 2012

Cultural signaling and energy

An image that struck me recently and has stayed with me since was a license plate. Specifically, a jet-black Kentucky license plate, emblazoned "Friends of Coal."

KY friends of coal license plate
The first thing that ran through my mind was, "Who in their right mind proudly trumpets supporting that?" It struck me as about the same contrarian attitude as waving around a Confederate flag (or its more common contemporary, sporting a Confederate flag bumper sticker; which again, some people actually do that). These are things that, to an uninitiated Midwestern exile like myself, should seem embarrassing to display, to say the least.

Yet, oddly enough, much like the confederate flag paraphernalia one encounters with depressing frequency south of the Mason-Dixon line, Kentucky's "Friends of Coal" license plate is the state's most popular custom license plate design - more popular than veteran's plates and those supporting the University of Kentucky. As it turns out, several other states in the area have their own variations, including Virginia and West Virginia.

Obviously, coal is a major economic player in Appalachia, so strong support is to be expected. But the image in my mind started making me think about a broader issue in energy politics, and perhaps why it seems why so often it seems like there are two sides talking past one another (where, incidentally, nuclear tends to be neglected in the crossfire). Specifically, a part of me wonders if what one sees in trends of public support for various energy sources has to do with the economic phenomenon of "signaling" behavior.

I've of course speculated about how cultural perceptions might play a role in public opinion over energy sources numerous times before, but what struck me here was whether support for energy sources - and specifically, some of the most stark divides that manifest - are perhaps deeper expressions of the cultural and aspirational values of the proponents, trumping factors including economics and environmental considerations (as well as basic issues of numeracy).

To back up a bit - in economics parlance, "signaling" is usually used as a way which people convey information which can't always be directly inferred or observed. Signaling can exist both in the banal, uncontroversial sense - wearing a suit and tie signals conformity, particular conformity to societal expectations of professional behavior - to somewhat more contested areas (such as whether higher education acts as a signal to employers as to characteristics including intelligence, diligence, or again, conformity).

Thus, my hypothesis - I am left to wonder if strong, highly polarized opinions on energy sources - particularly on divides such as coal (and to a lesser degree, natural gas) as well as wind and solar don't perhaps serve as signaling "stand-ins" for statements of individual values and cultural affinity.

In particular, the coal industry has capitalized on this in a particularly effective way, with their "America's power" re-branding, and in particular attempting to link coal exclusively to the idea of low-cost, reliable energy generation (again, despite the fact that the levelized costs of nuclear, with its capital costs folded in, are not wildly out of line with coal, particularly if carbon capture and sequestration is a mandated component.) Coal is, in effect, a signal of working-class values, and in particular an expression of solidarity with the working-class communities typically associated with coal-mining.

In a less regionally confined sense, one has to wonder whether some of the pushback from the right over President Obama's "War on Fossil Fuels" also has more to do with outward expressions of cultural affiliation than it does practical concerns over energy. (Nevermind that favoring one fossil source over another hardly consistutes a "war" on fossil fuels). Consider if you will how often right-wing pundits complain about how curtailing fossil fuel use for electricity would spike energy prices - again, as if nuclear energy weren't supplying a fifth of our electricity at the lowest marginal cost of baseload production next to hydro.

I can't help but feel like the effect is intentional - although perhaps not for the reasons folks like Rod Adams might assert (i.e., no, this is not a fossil-fueled conspiracy). Instead, look to the numbers - while support for nuclear energy is strong among self-identified Republicans, it trails far behind support for exploration of new fossil sources. Ultimately, one has to wonder if such public rending of garments pertains more to a cultural push-back response - rallying around fossil sources because of perceptions of the other - and less about actual, considered evaluation of economic and environmental trade-offs of different energy sources.

Contrast this with renewables - support for renewables is much like recycling - a token expression of environmental concern which can be done for minimal required effort. It is, in essence, expressing support for the environment without actually requiring any kind of substantial commitment from the individual. Considerations such as reliability of supply, economics, or even sheer scale are immaterial - support for renewables is, in essence, "green cred." Among the more radicalized, the inherent limitations of renewables are even considered a feature, not a bug - the limited capacity and availability of renewables are an exhortation to consume less, and ultimately to de-industrialize. In either case, support for renewables is less about the practical reality of the enormous challenge in powering an industrial society at the whims of nature and more about the value expression (or, as it were, aspiration) that it entails.

This process playing out prominently on the campaign trail right now. In Iowa, President Obama blasted Mitt Romney for his support of allowing a wind power production tax credit to expire. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney and his supporters have been slugging back, contending that Obama has been waging a "war on coal." (Note as well the targeted blue-collar audience.)

One can easily see where this one is going. Orphaned from any such discussions is nuclear; something at least now (mercifully) given tepid support by both sides, if only because excluding nuclear from energy discussions on the grounds of both environmental and economics grounds is inherently a politically self-marginalizing position, even if it doesn't seem to command strong feelings among most.

So what does support for nuclear energy signal, if you will (and likewise, its opposition)? I would hypothesize that the dividing line for nuclear turns on issues of technological optimism and energy abundance. A common thread I have observed among many nuclear professionals and advocates is a belief that the technology can consistently be made cheaper, more abundant, and ever safer. In particular among these people - myself included - is a belief in the imperative of energy abundance (this in fact was part of the reason I became a nuclear engineer). By contrast, nuclear opponents are frequently (although not always) in the opposite role - sometimes technological pessimists and with a shocking frequency advocates of energy austerity - believing that the answer always is to consume less (despite the unmistakable positive correlations between prosperity and energy consumption, namely due to what energy enables us to do in modern society).

I remark that nuclear opponents are not always technological pessimists, namely because one occasionally encounters the odd nuclear opponent with delusional beliefs about the capability of renewables - although almost universally they fall back to the position of energy austerity when the limitations of renewable sources are brought up.

What do you think? Is energy advocacy a marker for more deeply-held cultural values? And if so, what does a strong preference for nuclear indicate?

Aside: On a personal note, I hope to be back to more regular blogging soon; this month I started out as a new faculty in the Nuclear Engineering department at the University of Tennessee, and suffice to say, the life of a new faculty can at times be... overwhelming.


  1. I can think of two other possible motivations for support of fossil fuels, and the coal license plate in particular.

    1. A desire not to have to change. That's the way we've always done it, change is hard, and we know what coal is, not this newfangled nuclear stuff. This would be a reasonable response by lots of people. I have days like this.

    2. The license plate, in particular, could be an expression of pride in one's occupation by coal miners and people associated with the coal industry. We all like to feel good about what we do.

    I'm not sure if you'd count #2 as cultural signaling. I'd think they could overlap, but they're somewhat different.

    As to what supporting nuclear power means in terms of cultural signaling, I need to think about that. There are different sorts of nuclear supporters. I've encountered too many "Nuclear is The Answer" uncritical cheerleader types. I suspect that a lot of it is cultural signaling for them, but what they are signaling isn't clear to me.

    I do think that cultural signaling is only one factor, variable in individuals.

    And good luck getting started as a perfesser!

    1. Some excellent thoughts, Cheryl. No doubt there is some component of professional pride involved - heck, if there was an ANS license plate, I'd probably shell out the money for that one. And I'm sure adversity to change has a part of it as well. Beyond the license plate though, and beyond simple parochial appeals by politicians, I do have to wonder.

      Part of what provoked this whole train of thought with me is how odd it seems to hear major pols (for example, Romney) actively stumping for coal. Again, some of it is obviously just good retail politics, but I can't help but wonder whether some of it is deeper-rooted. Part of me is baffled as to why nuclear tends to get the rhetorical short shrift in push-back from the right over renewables - I mean, promoting coal as an alternative? Seriously? The absence of nuclear as a counter-alternative from said narrative honestly has me scratching my head.

  2. Are you stupid Steve, you sound just like a California anti-nuke?

    Coal is a great way to make power and is an important part of the US economy. If you can not figure why people involved are proud of a job well done, I do not want you working in the nuclear industry.

    I am proud of making power with nuclear power too. Part of being a nuclear professional is having a questioning attitude. We have a responsibility to the people who live around stationary power plants to not hurt them. We put reactors in containment buildings and pollution controls

    I am proud that our designs of LWR produce lots of power and do not hurt anyone. The same is true for coal, natural gas, and renewable energy. It is not a contest, it is a responsibility to the American people.

    Here is an exercise for you. Find a large city and take a critical look around. Then drive over to the Kingston coal plant which is not an icon for the newest most modern coal plant. I would not have a problem living near a coal plant.

    The point is that making power in the US has insignificant environmental and safety impact. So wise up Steve and learn more about all aspects of making power.

    1. @Kit P: With all due respect, I am certainly glad you aren't the one making the decision of who is and who is not in the nuclear industry, because we'd all be far poorer for it if you were.

      Not all energy is created equally. That's the point. Some are more environmentally benign, others less so. Some are more efficient and practical for powering a modern society. Some are more economically sustainable. This is not even a matter of opinion - it's a matter of indisputable facts. Energy choices have consequences. If you fail to see that distinction, why choose to work in the nuclear industry at all?

      To wit - we could power our cities right now by chopping down every last square inch of forest. And one could certainly make the case that these folks too would be serving a vital cause of powering modern society. But only a fool would say that this is an equally good, equally responsible way to get the energy we need.

      I chose willingly to change professions to go into nuclear engineering because I believe nuclear energy is vital for sustaining our modern way of life - namely because I do recognize how vital energy is to how we live. But I also realize that everything comes with a trade-off, and nuclear *by far* represents the best trade-off currently available to society. An unwillingness to acknowledge these trade-offs is the very error that both the fossil and renewables advocates both make.

      Finally, it's a bit ironic that you should bring up the Kingston Fossil Station as well, as I think their neighbors would beg to differ as to how benign coal operations can be:

  3. Steve you apparently do not know the difference between 'indisputable facts' and generalities. Furthermore you present only hyperbole.

    I can show you many examples of renewable energy that is better than any nuke plant. Nobody is suggesting cutting down all the trees.

    “a bit ironic that you ”

    Yes, it is a bit ironic that I suggested that you get out of the classroom observes something in the real world then you sent me a link to a web site. I can send you links to TMI too but what is the point?

    Both Kingston Fossil Station and TMI are examples that anti-s cite as failures at power plants. Neither accident hurt anyone. I made a point of driving by Kingston Fossil Station on the way home from an assignment at a nuke plant. I have also been to TMI. Both are very nice places to live.

    I have also studied both events as well as many other problems in the energy industry. In the nuclear industry and the energy industry we are always trying to learn lessons of failures.

    “nuclear *by far* represents the best trade-off currently available to society ”

    Maybe you should read some more economic analysis and EIS. Sometimes nuclear is the best choice. It is for blue water submarines and aircraft carriers. Large nuke plants distant from coal fields have a clear advantage.

    Nukes have a clear disadvantage because of the offsite dose consequences of a severe accident. The engineered safeguard features of LWR to protect workers and the public make nuke plants expensive.

    The bottom line is all power plants have to meet safety and environmental regulations. Sometimes a nuke plant is a good economic choice.