Friday, November 13, 2009

The Politics of Alternative Energy

Like Barack Obama, Sarah Palin has written a book. Unlike Barack Obama, Sarah Palin rarely knows what she's talking about. When Rachel Maddow does a major segment on Palin's bizarre interpretation of her own history, there's not much to add. I only mention Palin because she is proof of concern raised recently in a Newsweek article by Daniel Lyons when he wonders aloud whether the U.S. is doomed to drift along in the Twilight Zone:
It's not because our scientists aren't brilliant. They are. But look at what they're up against: a noisy babble of morons and Luddites, the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd, the birthers, and tea-party kooks who have done their best to derail health-care reform and will do the same to any kind of energy policy.

The real danger of course is that the United States will fall behind in technology after leading in numerous fields for most of the last hundred years or so. Yes, we still make technological advances but there are danger signs, the biggest being how little the federal government has spent on basic scientific research in the last thirty years. We spent more as a percentage of our GDP from 1940 to 1980 and it paid enormous dividends.

We also used to pay more money to improve our infrastructure. We were willing to think of the future and build roads and decent schools. We have also from time to time been able to rise to the occasion in the face of changing conditions. In the 1970s we knew we were facing a long-term energy problem and we actually took steps to deal with it. Then Ronald Reagan was elected and we turned to the fantasy that the markets always know best. And we did very little to improve our energy situation with sustainable solutions.

The Wikipedia map on the right shows how Europeans responded to the energy crisis. Today, a far greater percentage of their energy infrastructure is in the form of alternative energy than it was in 1980. Germany and Denmark, in particular, seem committed to converting completely to alternative energy over the next 20 years.

Technically, the U.S. produces about 7% of its energy from several forms of alternative energy, but most of it is either hydropower or biomass. For the most part, hydropower was harnessed decades ago and there's very little room for expansion in terms of conventional dam projects (harnessing tides may be another story though).

As for biomass, it has a useful role but U.S. production methods are inefficient and sometimes lead to more carbon dioxide production than simply using gasoline. If we only count windpower, solar power and geothermal, alternative energy in 2006 accounted for less than 1% of U.S. energy use. Things are improving but not nearly fast enough.

Clearly one way to address our growing energy problems as well as global warming is to cut down on the use of fossil fuels for driving cars. Hybrids, plug-ins and pure electric cars are all a step in that direction. But of course there's a problem as pointed out in a post on earth2tech:
“Without a doubt,” the group writes, “electric and plug-in hybrid cars can help reduce CO2 emissions and oil consumption.” But surprise!: Electric vehicles won’t solve climate change. The cars don’t produce tailpipe emissions (thus, the common shorthand of “zero emission vehicle”), but they are only as clean as their electricity supply.

Electric cars powered by coal-burning power plants are still more efficient than gasoline but this is no long-term solution. Even the potential of natural gas from shale is not a long-term solution though it is likely to provide time for transition. The real danger at the moment is a return to the complacency of the early 1980s. Then again, it is sobering to realize that we would be far along the road to energy sustainability if from the 1980s to the present we had taken our energy problems more seriously—as the Europeans did.



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