Tuesday, August 05, 2008
The Answer, My Friend-- Or At Least Part Of It-- Is Blowing In The Wind
Back in the late seventies, I started reading up on "Alternative Energy." I'd lived through the so-called "energy crisis" of the early seventies, which had been spurred by the embargo of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or "OPEC" upon any country that supported Israel. This included, of course, the United States.
Those of you who were around at the time remember the lines at the gasoline stations. Gasoline leapt up in price because it was suddenly relatively scarce. People panicked and lined up to fuel up their cars. I remember the outrage that gasoline had increased to 43 or 44 cents a gallon.
There was suddenly an awareness that yes, there was a finite amount of fossil fuel on the planet, and that we would have to start dealing with that reality. Suddenly, all kinds of things were done. The government started funding research into so-called "alternative energy"-- perhaps better called "sustainable energy." Generous tax breaks were given for individuals using solar technologies in their home, or insulating those homes better. Research was funded. Groups like the New Alchemy Institute on the east coast and the Farallones Institute on the west coast thrived. Sustainable architecture advocate Sim Van der Ryn became California's state architect.
Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President here in the United States. The tax breaks for solar energy and insulation were allowed to lapse. Generous tax breaks and low-cost leases on federal lands were given to oil and coal companies. For thirty years, we've been living in a fool's paradise of cheap endless energy. We began providing massive subsidies to oil companies in the form of very generous depreciation schedules and having our navy provide round-the-clock protection to oil routes. Not to mention getting in bed with some unwholesome regimes like Saudi Arabia.
Suddenly, one ill-advised war and probably some petroleum speculation later, fuel prices have skyrocketed, giving those of us who remember it an uncomfortable deja vu and those that don't a scary sticker shock.
The fact of the matter is that we may be looking at the end of most of our petroleum within my lifetime. I'm 47 years old. There's talk of 30 years left at the rate we're using it, and we're looking at a massive increase in use as China, India and other countries industrialize. 30 years may then become optimistic. Think back thirty years ago-- 1978. Not too long ago for me. I was in high school.
And that point may be moot, with global warming.
I've been reading George Monbiot's "Heat: How To Stop The Planet From Burning," lately. It's a pretty good book about not only global warming, but some prescriptions. I haven't finished it yet, but since I've been reading up on energy and sustainable living for about thirty years, I've got some thoughts.
First off, I think that economics will be part of the change. It's already personally affected me; I bought a gas-sipping 1993 Toyota Corolla last week, and sold my gas-guzzling 1994 Chevy Blazer yesterday. At 12 miles to a gallon in the city-- and I live in the city-- it was ludicrous. One day I realized that it cost me about six bucks to drive to my ex's house and pick up my son. In the bigger picture, many folks have done the same, and gasoline sales have plummetted. There's a rush on among car companies to drop their bigger models (specifically SUV's) and to develop better electric cars.
There's also a rush on to provide non-fossil fuel means of providing the electricity for those cars, and for home and industrial use.
Quick: tell me which state is the biggest producer of wind power (no Chicago politician jokes, please). Did you guess California? Nope. It's Texas, though California also produces plenty.
Recently, former oilman billionaire T. Boone Pickens came out advocating a massive investment in wind power. The New York Times recently had an article about a new wind farm in Nebraska that produces enough energy to power 19,000 homes with just 36 turbines.
Around the world, industrialized nations are plugging wind power into their grids. Industrial giant Germany is providing 7% of their electrical energy consumption with wind power. Spain has had a massive build-up of wind power and are providing 10% of their electricity needs with the wind. Denmark produces an amazing 20% of their electricity with wind.
Wind power is, however, definitely not a panacea. Not every part of the world is well-suited to it. A sustainable future is going to entail a lot of solutions, and some lifestyle changes.
If a sustainable future is going to work, we will need a lot of things-- industry, for one. We will have to find a way to use technology to our advantage, rather than eschewing technology. Nobody wants to live in the 1800's.
When you start to read about it all, and learn about it all, it can seem pretty intimidating. Clearly, technologies that don't exist yet will be needed in order to make it all work. But I have confidence that it can happen.
A few months ago, while my son and I were visiting my parents in Tennessee, my father and I had a conversation about his career working with computers. When he started working with computers, for IBM in 1967, he worked on the IBM 360's. These big computers, as big as a refrigerator, had a nearly-as-big disc storage drive that used large discs with a capacity of less than 7 megabytes in order to store the information it processed and produced. I remember as a kid my dad taking my brothers and I to an IBM office in downtown Chicago, where we saw these machines.
He and I laughed on my recent visit about the changes in technology and cost; the five pound laptop, a used Ibook that I'm writing this post on, has many times the computing capacity of that computer that weighed maybe a half ton. The 2 Gigabyte flash drive that I carry around in my pocket, that weighs less than a key, has nearly 300 times the storage capacity of the discs that stored the information. 2 Gigabytes of storage, in 1967, would have cost millions. I paid ten bucks for the 2 GB flash drive in the picture. Today I got a coupon from Microcenter for a free 2 GB flash drive.
If this kind of change can happen in computers, imagine what can happen with solar panels, heat-efficient housing, electric cars, mass transit, etc.
One of the regular features I'm going to include from now on in this blog is about sustainable living in general. There are a lot of aspects about it-- energy production, housing design, sustainable agriculture and other things. Some of the themes I hope that emerge are that a change to a sustainable future can mean an improvement in our quality of life, not a return to the stone age, and working with economics, rather than against it. I hope you will find it interesting, hopeful and maybe even enlightening.