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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Mon. Jul 21, 2008

Our Energy Future

First off, when you titled an article “Our Energy Future,” you’d think that it begins today. Or, at worst, tomorrow. No, in our case, it begins sometime after January 21, 2009.

Maybe.

“Much of what we’re seeing today could have been prevented or ameliorated had we chosen to act differently,” says Pete V. Domenici, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a 36-year veteran of the Senate. “It was a bipartisan failure to act.”

Mike Jackson, the chief executive of AutoNation, the country’s biggest automobile retailer, is even more blunt. “It was totally preventable,” he says, anger creeping into his affable car-salesman’s pitch.

In recent years, [former EPA director William K. Reilly] says that both the White House and Congress have passed up opportunities to call for higher gas taxes and fuel standards in the name of national security, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks. “We could have, but we didn’t,” says Mr. Reilly, who describes himself as a moderate Republican. “It’s part of a long pattern in which Democrats and Republicans have not wanted to wade into this issue.”

In 2007, with oil at $82 and gas nearing $3, Congress finally approved the first big increase in fuel-efficiency standards in 32 years, requiring the fleet average to reach 35 m.p.g. by 2020 [...] Since the 1980s, fuel efficiency has flatlined at 24 m.p.g., while vehicle weight has jumped more than 25 percent and horsepower has nearly doubled. In Europe, on the other hand, fuel efficiency currently stands at 44 m.p.g. and is slated to hit 48 m.p.g. by 2012.

NY Times: American Energy Policy, Asleep at the Spigot

Re-read that last paragraph to make sure you understand just how fully our “leaders” have failed us, on both sides of the aisle. Think about it every time the gas pump turns over another $10 going into your tank. Think about how the difference between your 24 mpg car and a 44 mpg car would fill your wallet, instead.

Recently Congress and the White House have been debating off-shore drilling, while simultaneously admitting it will make zero difference in the short term … but we’ve still got to do it.

OK.

You can apply that very same logic to solar energy, safer new nuclear power plants, wind power, and other alternative energy ideas. Pouring money into them now will make zero short term difference … but we’ve still got to do it.

Why aren’t we?

Why does it fall to someone like T. Boone Pickens, an oil man himself, to start a major initiative to supplant oil with wind? “Neither presidential candidate is talking about solving the oil problem. So we’re going to make ‘em talk about it,” Pickens says. If you haven’t seen the TV ads (and frankly, I think I’ve seen his ads more than I’ve seen ads for John McCain), then you can visit the web site for the Pickens Plan.

So, the technology is there, what could the hurdles be, even right here in Georgia?

Georgia Tech researchers, who recently completed a study on wind energy off Tybee and Jekyll islands, think so. Southern Co., which commissioned the report, will further study whether a wind farm could generate enough electricity to be financially feasible.

Many obstacles remain before wind electrifies Georgia homes, none greater than the fact that offshore wind farms don’t exist in the United States, as they do in Europe. Construction costs have jumped 50 percent the last three years.

Congress hasn’t renewed tax credits deemed necessary to boost production, unlike Washington’s subsidized embrace of ethanol and alternative fuels. Southern Co., which owns Georgia Power, prefers coal and nuclear power. Only 4 percent of its power, mostly hydro-electric, is generated by renewable fuels.

Public outcry over environmental and aesthetic qualities of the so-called Cape Wind farm 24 square miles of turbines off the Massachusetts coast has helped stymie the project for seven years. Lawsuits and regulatory scuffles continue to delay the placement of 130 turbines 6.5 miles from Cape Cod.

AJC: Wind turbines considered for Georgia coast

Oh, I see. The hurdles are [1] a foolish government tax credit policy that [2] gives megacorps no incentive to change their fossil fuel ways, and [3] by the way, the public says fix the environment please, but not in my backyard!!!

Then there’s solar energy, another case where the technology is here now, but the incentives are not. Meanwhile, countries in Europe are beginning to legislate that within the next decade, newly built homes must produce 50% of the electricity they use. Solar is the way to do that.

But when it comes to energy policy here is the US, we have our heads so far up our butt I’m not even sure we will notice when the lights go out.

I believe we are facing a momentous shift in our lifestyles due to energy supply and demand, and a correspondingly massive change in the marketplace. The concept of globalization as a market ideology is, frankly, about to run out of gas.

When you buy something “seasonal,” like a small basket of strawberries at your grocery store during the month of January, do you think about where they came from? Likely Chile, maybe Peru. As the cost of energy and oil goes up, the cost of transportation must rise as well. And at some point, it is no longer profitable, or even a reasonable usage of scarce resources, to ship small berries several thousand miles to your grocery store.

Take off your pants and look at the label. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Odds are very high it says “Made in China.” Perhaps the Phillipines or Thailand. Somewhere literally on the other side of the world. We all know that many forms of manufacturing moved to China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia over the past couple of decades due to cheap labor. But, again, as energy/oil costs rise, there will come a point where it no longer is profitable to ship you shorts from Shanghai.

Take these examples of strawberries and pants, and expand it across whatever industry you like. Expand it over the next couple of decades, and buzzwords like “globalization” will be replaced by the harsh reality of “closer is cheaper.”

This will be true for your groceries. It may someday get to the point that even strawberries grown in the summer in California will be rather pricey in New York or Maine. In Georgia, you’ll learn to substitute peaches, as they will be cheap, plentiful, and local.

Go ahead and scoff. It’s true, something like that last paragraph isn’t going to happen next month, next year, or even next decade. But it will happen. The trends are as plain as day, despite the refusal of our “leadership” to deal with them in a responsible manner.

Ultimately, you are on your own, and there are things you can do, as this is a long term issue. You can make the changes a step at a time. And much of it is your mindset. Remember, “closer is cheaper.” You have to start looking at the things you do the most, and look at them from a new angle. That nice 8 mile drive through trees to your nearest grocery store will decrease markedly in pleasure as the price of gas continues to rise.

I believe the days of suburban sprawl are over, and we will see a contraction. And your only solution is when you buy your next home, you take the nearness of such “staples” into strong consideration. Like I said, it’s a long term mindset.

Another thing you might keep in mind when buying that new home; either buy a little less home than you can afford so you have the extra money upfront, or use you first chunk of home equity, so you can finance some solar panels on your roof. Oh, yeah. That new home is also going to need a clear southern sky.

And it’s the same long term mindset with your car. First step: stop laughing when you see a SmartCar (though I have to admit, seeing one the other day taking up about 20% of a flatbed tow-truck was a rather hilarious sight). Because your last step may be to buy it, or something very much like it. In a decade or so.

There’s other ways to save gas. I drive a 7 year old Ford Ranger, and if I’m lucky around town it gets 16 or 17 miles to the gallon. I put $30 of gas in it today, for the first time in about a week and a half. My wife’s car probably went through at least $80 or $90 of gas in that same time span (and she gets better mileage than I do).

How do I do it? Tele-commuting. My wife drives about 12 miles to an office to sit at their company computer, while I walk down the hallway from our bedroom to my work computer.

I know, I know, your company won’t let you do that. They just don’t yet understand that they’re going to have to, some day, in their own best interests. And it’s your job to help them get pointed in the right direction. Prod them. Show them how it can work. Show them how a four day office week with one day telecommuting saves them 20% in utilities, i.e., energy. Because their energy costs are going to rise with yours.

It’s definitely not a cure-all. There are indeed a lot of jobs where you have to use certain equipment or otherwise be in a specific spot to do your work. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them.

Because we used to be a country that Made Things, before our manufacturing base got outsourced overseas. We’ve largely become a service economy. I am hard pressed to come up with one thing that is made in America, and not available at the same quality or price elsewhere.

And here is a glorious opportunity to change that. Not just for our benefit, but for the entire world’s. We should be throwing ourselves feet first into the deep end of the energy industry. We should be fomenting an Energy Revolution.

The thing is, if we don’t, someone else will. And our descent into an energy starved second rate economy will be set in concrete.

You may not see it happening now, and you may not live to ever see it. But your children surely will.


Peanut Gallery

1  rturner wrote:

I hate to pick on the Great Communicator (oh okay, twist my arm a little) but I saw one video of him on the White House lawn supervising the removal of Jimmy Carter’s solar panels back in ’81. In truth, as you mention, 99% of our political “leaders” have been avoiding this issue 99% of the time if you don’t count lip service.

I just got back from a trade show in another city where the other vendors were walking around with little queasy smiles on their faces saying, “on the positive side, we didn’t lose as much as we expected to”. Next year the show managers will combine their 8 shows into 2. That ought to save on some jet fuel.

I read some article on the guy who produces the Tesla and is gearing up for something normal people can afford who wants his economy version to run off a single solar panel for a year. Just a baby step, but it’s a start. I work from home and we buy locally grown produce whenever possible. My sister is setting up a vpn situation at work and her kids are curtailing “long drive” activities so that they can stop filling up their two suvs two times per week.

A lot of little baby steps, and maybe, finally (?) a change of focus in Washington in January? One starts to wonder what it really needs to take.

2  Walt E. wrote:

Yes! Brother Photodude! It’s a shame we have been playing with ourselves for the last 3 decades. An atomic power plant MELTED DOWN in PA in the 70’s and all the NIMBYs wet their pants. Not one single person died from TMI. Shame it takes a decade or more to permit and build a Nuke plant. We’re in that hole in the ground that we made for ourselves. What the American people need to do is make their displeasure known in the election. That’s the start. Then we will have to hold the their feet to the fire. We’re gonna have to take a hit ourselves. It’s gonna hurt. But anything is better than buying 70 percent of our energy overseas. We really need to think outside the box. I get 25 to 32 mpg depending on street or cross-country. I still try to buy no more than one 12 gallon tank a month. In reality I need to start car pooling to the food store, and everywhere else. Our population hasn’t been tested in a long time. We’re about to be re-introduced to Brother Darwin. It ain’t gonna be purdy. The strongest will survive. The first deaths will come in New England this winter. I pray it’s not a very cold one this year. Good luck everyone.

Comment by Walt E. · 07/25/2008 12:02 PM
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