Monday, September 1, 2008

Creating a Sustainable Future (Facing the Energy Crisis: Part 3)

Fossil fuels are on their way out whether we like it or not. Which, in the end, is fine — over time, the human race can adapt to survive without oil and coal, especially if we begin changing our lifestyles and developing solutions today.

But not just any solutions will do. If the energy crisis teaches us anything, and I hope it teaches us much, it must teach us the importance of sustainability. As we wean ourselves from dirty, dead-end fossil fuels, we must be careful not to develop new dependencies that could lead to other crises further down the road. Our efforts at sustainability must extend far beyond energy to include the atmosphere, oceans, freshwater (Wired had a great article a while back about the threat of freshwater shortages), architecture, materials, waste, food, and, indeed, all natural resources and processes. Bottom line: it's time for a little creative problem solving.

Recently, both presidential candidates have taken this task a little more seriously, although their lofty campaign rhetoric still contains significant traces of fantasy and foolishness. Private investors (doubtless you've heard of the Pickens Plan), auto manufacturers, and even Big Oil companies all have their ideas about what to do. Although I don't consider Al Gore to be entirely credible (was that a Nobel prize for hypocrisy...?), his We Can Solve It campaign is very well intentioned, and his "plan" to convert 100% of America's energy into clean energy in 10 years (although probably unrealistic and prohibitively expensive) is just the kind of go-for-broke effort this country needs.

Here's where we should start:

Encourage U.S. Innovation. In Part 2, I suggested a carbon tax as a way to make fossil fuel use unattractive. But there's another side to that coin: the more undesirable gas-powered transportation and coal-fired electricity (i.e., the status quo) become, the more desirable the alternatives seem. This throws the doors wide open for innovation. With the appropriate disincentives, it shouldn't be long before Americans scramble to change their personal habits and fight to adopt emerging carbon-neutral innovations. New business innovations will blossom as manufacturers begin competing for customers looking for the most efficient, carbon-neutral products available. Almost immediately, the competition inherent within our capitalist system starts working to propel desirable change. A revenue-neutral carbon tax must be the foundation of any serious energy plan.

Additional incentives may play a role from time to time. For example, it could be helpful to offer government "prize money" for demonstrating certain cost-effective breakthrough innovations in energy and efficiency, similar to McCain's (unbelievably extravagant) $300 million incentive for an exponentially better electric car battery.

Stop Using Corn-based Ethanol as Auto Fuel. Immediately. There's probably a future in biofuels of other sorts (e.g., biodiesel), so encourage research in this field. But corn-based ethanol is a government-funded failure. It might burn somewhat cleaner (even that is questionable), but it's not cost-effective, or remotely sensible. Food prices are escalating and half the world is starving, so let's maybe boost our exports and feed people instead of liquidating food supplies by turning them into inefficient oil alternatives.

Invest in Wind & Solar. (Same goes for hydrogen fuel and other, more experimental energy sources.) Remove all current fossil fuel subsidies and use the money to subsidize sustainable energy development and production instead. Encourage private investment, research, and development, but as a rule, don't dump government money into any unproven or underdeveloped technologies. Wind and solar offer fantastic potential as renewable fuel sources, but they're still not efficient or cost-effective enough to provide broad-scale alternative energy. Besides, weather-dependent energy production brings it's own set of challenges (some companies are already rising to meet those). That said, we can't be afraid to adopt new technologies as they emerge (and private investors like Pickens should be encouraged and supported in their efforts). Expect innovations in these fields, and work to integrate them quickly.

Take Full Advantage of Geothermal & Hydropower. These are great natural, sustainable energy sources. Whenever available and wherever possible, we should tap into them. We already know how. Also, the huge potential of tidal power remains largely unexplored.

Start Relying More on Nuclear Energy. New nuclear plants have to be a huge part of any serious clean energy plan. Nuclear plants currently supply only about 20% of U.S. electricity, yet nuclear energy is arguably the safest, most reliable, sustainable, cost-effective method of energy production in the world ... with a tiny carbon footprint. This is proven technology. It's time we stopped being afraid of it. Especially since nuclear "waste" is close to 100% recyclable (see France and the U.K.). Future innovations in this field (e.g., fusion research) are bound to bring even greater efficiency. Still not convinced? Talk to former Greenpeace pioneer-turned-nuclear energy advocate Patrick Moore.

Decrease Wastefulness & Inefficiency. Finally, one of the most obvious (and increasingly necessary) ways to relieve the U.S. energy crisis (and save ourselves a load of money) is to use less energy. As they say, waste not, want not. Consider this: Americans use five times more than the average world citizen. That's right — although we represent just 5% of the world's population, we use nearly a quarter of the world's energy. Even the average homeless American has a carbon footprint twice the size of the world average. Researchers from MIT suggest we can cut fuel consumption 50 percent in 25 years. That seems reasonable — in theory, it shouldn't be hard for us to scale back even more than that. In practice, however, the greedy, selfish, lazy part of our human natures often needs a bit of a nudge to stir us from complacency.

Here, a carbon tax will certainly help. But in some cases, more new taxes and restrictions may also serve to influence citizens' and corporations behavior for the better.

One place to start would be taxing the manufacturing and sale of new vehicles and appliances that do not conform to strict efficiency and emissions standards (used vehicles/appliances would be exempt). This would discourage people from buying (and manufacturers from making) certain models. Odds are, every new car will be a hybrid in 12 years anyway. Another idea, provided that there's sufficient public transportation available, is banning cars that don't have special permits (e.g. fuel-efficient taxis, emergency vehicles, etc.) from within city limits — encouraging walking, cycling, subway trains, etc. as energy-saving alternatives. We could even go so far as to outlaw certain vehicles for private or recreational use (always providing exceptions for demonstrated business needs). Some of these measures sound extreme, but they're all worth looking into.

On a more simple, personal level, it's time to evaluate our lifestyles. Simplify. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. We have to be part of the change we're hoping for. It won't be easy. It won't be without cost. But it's within our reach.

Additional Reading:
Part 1 — Making Sense
Part 2 — Treating Fossil Fuels with Foresight