Friday, July 25, 2008

Plugging In Obama

As Barack Obama seems to be saying all the right things and drawing hundreds of thousands who can't vote for him in Europe, the U.S. is still in a muddle over energy policy. What energy policy, you say? Well, there's several of them.

* "Drill More and They Will Come." This is the Bush-Cheney-OPEC stance. Open up more oil fields everywhere and keep the spigot flowing. There's no incentive to cut back on consumption and no prices will come down because OPEC and state-owned oil producers have an incentive to keep prices controlled and artificially high. This is also known as the "don't worry, no pain" policy that is so 20th Century.

* "Plug cars in like rechargeable drills and we'll reduce our dependence on petroleum."The idea here is that plug-in hybrid cars that utilize huge battery packs, electric motors and small gas engines will reduce our reliance upon petroleum. It may, but both the technology and grid capacity are years away. It will do nothing for gas and oil prices now. There's already a $100,000 Tesla Roadster that essentially does this. Yet the car for the average commuter isn't here. There's another concern that nobody knows what plugging in millions of cars to the already strained and antiquated grid will do to the power supply. The grid needs tens of billions to update it and make it "smart" -- deliver power to where it's needed automatically -- but it's still prone to huge breakdowns. Besides, where would most of this power come from? About 40% of it comes from burning coal and creating greenhouse gases. The rest is from hydro, nukes and natural gas. Only hydro is really carbon-neutral and totally renewable, but it's only available in a small part of the country. The consultant JD Power sees about 1 million plug-ins on the market by 2013, although we clearly need them now.

* "The Manhattan/Apollo project." Depending on who's pushing this, this is the "big government will bankroll research and development" approach. While this is one part of the solution, private industry will most likely come up with low-cost, appropriate technologies first. That's not to say that we shouldn't get taxpayers behind this effort. The tax code needs to be re-structured to reward conservation, energy efficiency/technology, green building and creating jobs. The economics won't change until government employs the carrot-and-stick approach with massive tax credits. We should cancel the subsidy for home mortgage interest and shift it to energy r&d. I know this is radical, but it's necessary and will do more to lower homeownership costs over time. Natural gas, electricity and heating oil prices are at record highs and are unlikely to fall much in a deregulated environment. More people than ever before are applying for home-utility assistance. Here's where those redirected subsidies should go:

-- Research for all-electric cars, batteries and charging stations. We already have the technology in place for the first item, but we can't complete the puzzle without the other two. Batteries need to be lighter, store energy for longer periods and be even smarter to power the surges of driving. Recharging stations will build on the new battery technology to become less dependent upon the grid. Solar panels and wind turbines on homes can pump electrons into batteries by day and then release them for night recharging. After you expense this equipment (it should be a tax write-off), the power is free.

-- Fund carbon-capture and gasification technology. We have plenty of coal, as does China, Europe and Australia. What do you do with the carbon dioxide? You can scrub the other pollutants. We need a way of either converting the carbon or storing it.

-- Make solar cost-competitive with coal. The Google foundation is already funding this. This will make economic sense. How about tapping the solar wind or sunlight in outer space that shines 24/7?

-- Reprocess and store nuke waste safely and securely. Yucca Flats is not the answer. We need to eliminate the "toxic legacy" if nukes are to make long-term sense.

-- Make biofuels from waste, not corn and soybeans. You can make ethanol from grass clippings, ag waste and most other green refuse. The large-scale chemistry isn't there yet. We should be making ethanol from things people don't eat. There's no humane reason food prices have to rise because we're making fuel.

-- Create a mandated national building/development code. Just like standards for appliances in the National Energy Policy Act, we can do that with buildings to enforce tougher energy and resource consumption standards. This code should apply to all commercial-industrial buildings and homes. For retrofits, a generous schedule of tax breaks should be available.

-- Unite all of the consumer energy, conservation and environmental lobbies to get on the same page. There are hundreds of these groups and they need to speak with one voice to lobby not only Congress but state/county/local legislatures and private employers. There needs to be an AARP for consumer energy concerns. How about FREE (Federation for Renewable and Efficient Energy)?

-- Create jobs, export technology. We use to do this really well in the US. Now we're exporting jobs and creating useful technology like male-enhancement drugs and the latest skin-rejuvenation procedures. We need to get beyond our own vanity and indolence and do something. If we create jobs, we help the inner city to displace drug dealers and gangs. Instead of SUVs, we can build EUVs (electrical utility vehicles or cars that create their own energy). Instead of exporting our debt to pay for tax breaks and wars, we can export nanotechnology that will turn windows and roofs into solar collectors.

Are you still wondering what this has to do with Obama? I am submitting these ideas for use in his somewhat-weak energy platform. John McCain is also free to use my ideas. I know Ralph Nader is already on board. Aren't I generous?

Even if no candidate embraces my Plug-In Plan, send this to your Congressman and Senator.

I even have a motto: "Plug In, Power Up and Drop In!" (Instead of dropping out and doing nothing, drop your elected representative a line or visit them). Tell them the dailywombat is watching them!

1 comment:

bk said...

One problem in the current environment is that this is too complicated a message for Joe Lunchbox to get during a 30-60 second political commercial. "Drill now" is easier to understand.

A couple additional points
1) Power companies should lower electricity rates at 2am to encourage recharging of plug ins at night. Put timers on the plug in to make them start in the middle of the night. Better utilization of our overstressed power grid, less need for new power plants, etc
2) As a general rule, i am not particularly fond of the French, but other than some really pastries and wine, they do nuclear right. I have mixed emotions about nuclear, least the French standardize their plants (all are identical, vs the US model where each plant is custom built, custom approved, custom trained, etc etc) and they process the spent fuel down to a concentrated size