As the US Presidential election draws near, I have renewed hope that we’ll finally get serious about energy independence. In a moment of (uncharacteristic) optimism, I also think it may be the case that the financial crisis will provide the opportunity for us to take exactly the right kind of actions to address energy independence and a host of other issues.
(Of course, it could go the other way)
As I have argued before, energy, global warming, the economy, consumption, conservation, and even the Iraq war, obesity, disease, global food, and water issues are not separate. In so many ways, these issues are all linked.
Any solution that addresses any one independently, will most likely adversely affect others. Consider ethanol subsidies, which are intended to improve our energy independence. If I recall correctly, these subsidies have increased our supply of nationally produced fuel by around 4%, which is, on its own, a good thing. However, ethanol from corn is fraught with problems — increased use of water, competition with food prices, and only a negative impact on CO2 emissions. It’s a simple-minded solution.
I recognize that we’ll need to make some short-term decisions as we transition to a new energy economy. We’ll keep using coal, or use more, we’ll probably drill (baby, drill) for more oil, and so on. Maybe we’ll even build a nuclear plant. But these are purely tactical, political issues none of which address the core of the problem.
But what we need, and what I am encouraged to hear clearly from Obama (not McCain) is a coordinated response to the major issues facing our country, and our world. We need one plan.
We need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, come up with new jobs that replace the old jobs that will be lost as a result of financial collapse, and we need to seriously address global warming.
We can do this all. Perhaps this is the silver lining to the cloud of financial recklessness that we have brought upon ourselves and upon the world. The solution is simple (in concept), and it is comprehensive in its ability to address our multiple woes with a single effort.
There are several key elements that have been missing that now seem to be in sight:
- Market-oriented investment incentives such as cap-and-trade CO2 markets
- Government leadership
- A bold, well-defined plan
Al Gore, and T. Boone Pickens, and Obama have each put forth plans. They are different in many ways, but all promote
- Dramatic increases in wind and solar electricity generation (as a core element of the plan)
- Construction of large-scale upgrade to our electricity transmission grid
- Support for R&D in clean energy technologies
- Rapid movement away from oil-based economy towards more efficient transportation
- A well-defined plan executed over 10 years
Pickens’ plan is more narrowly focused, and different in some ways. For example, he proposes compressed natural gas (CNG) as a viable alternative to gasoline and diesel fuel for transportation, whereas Gore’s and Obama’s plans promote plug-in hybrids, and conservation efforts. Gore and Obama also both explicitly state the need for cap-and-trade carbon trading, as well as a need to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to reverse the course of global warming.
The details are not important at this point, in my opinion. Nor are the motivations: profit motive, global warming, national security, economy — a plan that focuses our efforts on the main points above will help address each of these issues, and the many more that are linked.
The gas crisis this summer gave us a jump-start, the financial crisis may be the leverage we need to make this stuff really happen. A 10-year plan initiated pretty much starting now, and with aggressive, coordinated, and unified support from all parties we can make it all happen.
The details will work themselves out as part of executing the plan. The technology that is not there will be improved when we put our best minds on the problem — nothing in any plan is based on some wild speculations about how the proposed systems will work, only that as we put real effort, and attention on implementing a plan, things that are marginally more expensive now can be made significantly more efficient, and therefore simply a better dollar-and-cents alternative to oil (even if oil prices continue to fall).
The magic of our economy, and perhaps of our country, is that when we get going on things like this, we figure out how to get it done.
And what’s most important is that the problems are not impossible to solve, as skeptics say.
The result of our last oil crisis was a truly dramatic improvement in the energy efficiency of our vehicles and our homes. The legislation that some said would kill our auto industry turned out to be its savior. And then we lost focus, and it all unraveled.
Likewise, today we are primed to do in a short time that which people say is impossible.