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.


Erik Donald France said...

Pretty daunting, indeed. Great post!

"Fool's paradise" launched by the "Morning Again in America" Reagan "revolution," all true.

Your Dad worked for IBM in the 60s? My Dad worked for them in the 50s, and 3M company in Chicago in the late 60s, and on to St. Paul. Cool!

Cheers on posting about sustainable industry, technology, and lifestyle, all in context!

Anonymous said...

stop shopping at aldi- there's one.

Anonymous said...

ok, let me expound. centralized food sources that 'save you money' actually cost the planet in the long run. Food that can be had from more localized sources (and yes it may be a bit more expensive) rather than grand, agricultural super domes reduces the environmental impact by far. Less food, bought from local sources, shipped less miles, albeit more expensive can drastically save our dwindling resources.

SkylersDad said...

Great stuff JY, I am looking forward to your series. Having driven through Wyoming a number of times, I think the entire state should be one huge wind farm.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I'm so glad to hear that you are going to be regularly featuring posts on sustainable living. This is something that we all need to become more informed about so we can make educated decisions.

South of here, where wind is a plentiful commodity, you can see acres and acres of windfarms and they have a surreal beauty to them. All of our LRT system is run on wind power now.

GETkristiLOVE said...

Where is Colorado on your wind list? We have a lot of wind researchers here in Boulder, and there's a plant just outside the city. Plus we can see NCAR from the trails behind our house.

Dr Zibbs said...

Can't we use those 100,000 lowland gorillas they just found and get them to bicycle? We could then use the energy.

Alasdair said...

Hey, for what it is worth: There's a community garden about seven blocks from Lakeview High, on Ashland, that is listed by the city as being an "edibles" garden. That's not unusually distant from your location, right?

The past couple of years, I've traded sweat and some scratches from weeds for all the basil I can use (and I use a lot, being as I make a lot of Italian) at the local organic garden.

Maybe they're all full up on volunteers, but there's little to replace hanging out in the garden :)

Doc said...

As a father of two small children I'm looking forward to any ideas you have to add.


'Bubbles' said...

I love this subject. My mom (my hero, as you know) grew up in poverty and during the great depression. They were all about using everything and wasting nothing. I'm so glad that I had her influence. It is easy for me to see waste and be 'green' in my living. I hope my kids will learn similar. I made Thing 1 drive my car to work for a few days because it has a feature to calculate gallons used on a trip. She learned the cost of each trip... and worked with her manager to make her schedule more efficient! Yeah, baby! We need to *think*!

Anonymous said...

I have gotten to the point I refuse to use the plastic bags in stores if I can possibly help it. There is now a cache of sturdy reusable shopping bags that live in my trunk and a smaller one under my visor . Since we got the second blue bin I've noticed the third garbage can is mostly empty each week. Good for all of us in the house! I know these are small things but one less garbage bin in the dump has to add up! A few less plastic bags blowing in the wind have to be a good thing.

Lastly, we do have a great garden and it's organic. I was forced to use an insectcide last week, so I used a soap formula. It worked great-see it's possible!


dmarks said...

They have tried to put up a bunch of windmills in my area, but people on nearby land always try to block them. This to me is a violation of basic property rights: as long as they are not on your land, you should butt out. The Kennedies have blocked them in Massachusettes because they look funny. The property rights movement in this way is generally considered to be a conservative idea, but it can help wind power if it can be used to stop people from blocking windmills.

Freida Bee said...

Love this. I am always doing what I can and am personally conflicted on this matter because I live in a "green" house with solar panels and some other nice features, but then we live just outside the city limits and bus routes and are too far away to bus or bike (with kids even if I were extremely ambitious- not so much) and have to use more gas than I like. I'd love to have either a green house in the city so I could public transport (takes more $ than I have now) or a more efficient than my 20 mpg (which I thought was bad, but 10mpg- ouch) van). I will be glad to get better informed.

I thought this might interest you a bit. It's good news as far as I'm concerned. I imagine that ethanol may not be our most efficient energy source, but believe you me, if Rick Perry opposes it, it's probably sound environmental policy.