Saturday, November 1, 2008

What we need to do NEXT Part 3

This is the third part of my work. This part focuses on Energy and the Environment, areas being neglected as the economy unravels.

Energy and The Environment
In the economic crisis that has finally gotten covered by the press in the last couple of months, we have somehow forgotten the environment. Global warming isn’t going away. Pollution isn’t going away either. For the last 8 years or more, both of these issues have gotten short-shrift from the Republicans. We need to get back on-track on these subjects.

The first thing we need to do is cut tax rates for green power companies. Specifically those that build and use wind turbines and solar power. Current tax breaks for these companies are set to expire this year, right when we need them the most, and Congress has yet to extend them. Not good.

Next we need to invest in research on these areas so we can introduce our technologies to the rest of the world. If we fail to do this, we will be buying these technologies from other countries instead of exporting them. The more of these companies that are producing green energy for us, the better. Not only will it create jobs here, but it will bring back wealth that we have been shipping out to other countries by the shipload. And we need it back, badly.

In my opinion, the Pickens Plan isn’t perfect, but it’s a really good start. Nobody in political power has come up with anything better that could be implemented. I strongly recommend we adopt it in some form.

I remember a study that was done sometime before I was born that came to the conclusion that nuclear power plants didn’t make economic sense. It cost more in energy to build and remove a nuclear power plant than the plant produced in its useful life. These power plants are being used for longer than was expected at that time, and for longer duty-cycles without incident. It’s time we funded a new study on this important question, and if the answer ends up being that the energy cost of building, fueling, and decommissioning these plants is still larger than the energy produced in it’s useful life, we need to bury this technology once and for all instead of bringing it up over-and-over again. If, however, it turns out that newer information shows the opposite, that a nuclear power plant produces a net-gain in energy, then we need to carefully implement them in a safe and secure manner. Either way, the debate needs to end.

Earlier this year we had a wake-up call over Peak Oil. Speculators pulled their money out of financial stocks and put it into oil futures and ran up the cost of oil, giving us a picture of what the world will look like in a few years if we don’t start cutting our oil usage. We really need to get off of oil as a fuel as quickly as possible. Not just because we use so much oil as fuel, but also because oil is our only feedstock for plastics and the only source of jet fuel. There is no biological alternative for either of those yet. Once oil is gone, so are single use medical items and jet airplane flights, including passenger planes and military planes. Don’t like sharing needles? You may not have a choice in the future. Unless we stop using oil and move over to alternatives, our future may start looking more like the past.

One of the best things we can do to fight the problem of peak oil is to stop burning so much of it for transportation. We can stop using nearly as much oil as we are by converting our fleet of personal cars to electric with diesel powered generators that kick in for longer trips. The conversion of our fleet to electric should be done by giving auto makers tax breaks and research dollars to move over to electric. Heavier taxes should be imposed on purely gas driven cars, which in my mind includes Toyota’s Prius and all other hybrids on the market today. Giving owners of electric cars breaks on solar power installations would also help get people to buy these vehicles.

Other things we can do to reduce our reliance on oil as fuel would be to start designing our cities so that cars were less necessary. Urban sprawl and suburbs are the real reasons most people have cars. If you live a long distance from where you work, a car becomes the best way to get to work each day. Design cities so that they are more compact, so that there are well defined living, working, retail, and industrial areas, and suddenly public transportation, bicycles, and walking become viable alternatives.

This also has the interesting side effect of stopping the conversion of farmland to paved-over housing subdivisions. I’ve been watching this happen to Silicon Valley (formerly the Valley of Heart’s Delight) all of my life. I live on a side street of Blossom Hill Road, named so because it used to run through orchards. Now it runs almost continuously through retail and housing areas from one end to the other, a run of more than 10 miles. I sense that we will probably want most of that farmland back at some point. It would be better not to pave it over in the first place.

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