Wind Me Up... (or A Vent on Domestic Energy Policy)

My Dad sent me an op-ed from the New York Times entitled Mr. Bush, Lead or Leave this morning and asked my opinion on it. I agree with a lot of what the author says, but I think that we’re missing the boat entirely on this stuff. People are thinking about this as “how do we replace oil?” The real question they should be asking is “How do I live without oil?”

Not radically different, but if we only look at how to replace oil, we limit the potential of what can happen. Everyone scrambling for a piece of the pie too. “Clean Coal” — which I believe to be the biggest oxymoron since “slightly racist” — sponsored most of the Presidential debates. You know what that got us? Very few questions or discussion about a real energy policy.

Anyway, here’s my reply, in whole, to my father. It was written quickly, not proofread, and is missing links. I’ve tried to add them where appropriate to fill in the context of conversations not shared, but the idea is there. The bold paragraph at the end is the most important thing.

— Begin —

Oh, where do I begin?! :)

deeep breath

Basically, even if we found new reserves in US Territory and sucked them dry, that would only account for something like 8 Billion barrels (gotta find where I read that). At 120 million barrels of world consumption a day, that’s a little more than two months supply.

Two months

Those reserves would take years to find and even longer to bring online, and then we don’t have the transportation in place to get most of that to refineries (well, the coastal shelf stuff we do, but not the ANWR). Also, it’s a reserve. Regardless of what you think might be there, it was set aside for a reason. Is Bush’s next element of the energy policy to open Yosemite to geothermal companies and The George Washington Forest to loggers?

It’s basic macroeconomics: The problem is a combination of an increase in demand without an increase in supply. And there really isn’t any more supply. The OPEC guys can’t get it out of the ground fast enough to keep up with China and India’s demand. And we can’t tell them to not develop. Their people see American culture and want to live that way. Problem is, that culture was built on sixty years of cheap oil.

Alternate energy isn’t much better at this point because all of it – every single thing that’s out there today, relies on an underlying fossil fuel economy in order for it’s manufacture, delivery, marketing, etc. Yes we’ve been losing research jobs in alt energy overseas, but that’s as much to blame on bad policy since 1970. All nuclear engineers go to France or China because we’ve not launched a new plant since Three Mile Island. “Nuclear power is great! except… um… put it in HIS backyard” – that’s the problem.

Geothermal is great too. This would work well in the Northern central plains where heating is critical more so than anything else. But how do you tell an out of work auto worker or small family farmer that they need to drop thousands of dollars on a new geothermal heat pump? Only if it’s cheaper than their heating bill from oil. Wave energy looks cool too, and would be quite successful in our area I feel (with the sheer area covered by the massively tidal Chesapeake, it could be quite a boon) and is also working 24-7. But that’s a lot of investment and maintenance (corrosive salt water).

Solar? Cool stuff. We have a massive desert in the southwest, the majority of which is still federally held land. Smack some arrays down there and make a combo solar/wind farm. Or do Algae. Some big Texas oil men are already dumping money into wind to take advantage of the free stuff they get on the plains. Again, manufacture and transportation rely on oil. Photovalactic cells have come a long way, and are still progressing. Same with battery banks. They all have a shelf life as well.

Another issue with solar is cost. In the state of Virginia, I can’t make back my investment because of the way that Dominion power doesn’t really pay you for the power you generate back to the grid. Waldo has an excellent article on this from last year. With energy starting to skyrocket tho, it might become cost effective in the math.

On a smaller scale, you can do what they did at Gaviotas in Columbia. A solar reflector (basically aluminum) heats water and creates a turbine. It’s like a coal fired engine but with the sun. Now that is renewable and not oil dependent (except maybe for milling of pipe, etc). That can also be used as just a water heater for showers and for distilling water.

Ethanol? Corn is such a crappy fuel. We put almost as much into it via petrochemicals (that also pollute the crap out of the Mississippi and turn the Gulf of Mexico into an algae bloom, killing off other species) that it’s a zero gain situation. And with world grain consumption and crop failures up (3 million acres of corn lost from these recent floods) you’re going to have food riots (already happening overseas) and all food prices are going to increase and stay high (see this article about the CEO of Nestle ). We could use switchgrass, but you’ve got farmers paid to raise corn, not switchgrass. Brazil is all ethanol based, and look what sugar production is doing to the Amazon.

That algae based idea would be great if they could get it into production. The return per acre would make the american southwest the algae ethanol king. Heck, Mexico could even be better than us in the Sonora states.

The author, James Howard Kunstler, writes about a lot of these technologies in his book “The Long Emergency”, which, while quite dour, is a potential vision of what we’re up against. I’ve already seen many of the ideas he espoused years ago in main stream media outlets (McMansions are the new ghettos, etc). (See his article in the Washington Post from May.)

I agree that a real President would get up and do a Kennedy-esque speech of energy independence before the next decade is out. Seeing as I don’t foresee Sen. McCain making it through the next decade, that leaves the only logical choice :) But it’s not just energy. It’s about sustainable human settlement patterns. It’s about bringing back victory gardens. It’s about effective mass transit. It’s about tearing down the temples of commerce sitting in seas of asphalt (e.g. malls, strip malls, etc) and building livable, walkable communities. It’s about reverting the way america lives to pre-WWII. It’s about family farming. It’s about sustainable agriculture.

I expect to see replays of the 1970s sooner rather than later, regardless of the direction taken by any President or Congress. We’ve already had rice rationing in some states. It’s like getting prepared for a massive hurricane that will leave you without power, food, or gas for years.

Man. I want a farm.

— End —

So yeah. Um. Discuss?

  1. chris says:

    Couple things: Tesla, conservation of existing urban infrastructure v. replacement, post-war G.I. Bill vs. long-standing tendencies toward sprawl, corporate tax shelters intended to stimulate R&D vs. continued dependence on oil, devaluation of the dollar after the mortgage crisis vs. the War in Iraq, bi-party political myopia and rhetoric in the form of subsidies for commodities, the Fed, NIMBY (as you mention), PassivHaus and the ever-present Andrew Dan Jumbo annoying the life out of me.

  2. Tiff says:

    Interesting. I read some Mother Jones article a while back that asserted pretty much the opposite- living without energy is pretty much a non-starter, so some kind of alternative energy has got to get developed, and we'd better do it quick because, as you say, we have to rely on the fossil fuel economy to deploy it before we'll get any benefit from it.

  3. John Athayde says:

    It's not so much living without energy. It's about looking at smart development and conservation. Now what energy company is going to encourage conservation? As <a href="http://waldo.jaquith.org/blog/2008/06/dominion-price-hike/">Waldo pointed out in regards to the Dominion power price hike</a>, no board of directors is going to be suddenly saying "don't give us your money!!!" They're in the business of making profit for their shareholders. So without them encouraging any of the things that would start to make differences, it's a Bush-White-House-esque head-in-the-sand approach to it: "If I don't listen, it doesn't really exist."

    But look at California when they had the rolling brown outs every summer a few years back. Virginia probably won't see that anytime soon as most of our power comes from coal, but if we don't get consumption lower and more sustainable generation methods (e.g. solar and micro hydro perhaps) online, it's going to be a very expensive and untenable future.

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