Thursday, July 3, 2008

Energy amazement

I continue to be amazed at the casual attitude I'm seeing toward our energy issues. The pundits, the press, and even the regular people who are quoted in news stories and programs seem convinced, on the basis of no evidence at all, that magic will occur and everything will essentially end up OK.

You don't have to share in the apocalyptic (but always entertaining) views of James Howard Kunstler to believe that there are serious problems afoot. But we want to believe in magic, that some wonderful source will come along and allow us the same lifestyle we've been enjoying, and I'm just not seeing it.

We'll hoist up oil rigs in our seas and tundra and black gold will just flow, putting those rapacious Arabs in their place (in an otherwise interesting article in the current TIME, Michael Kinsley labels OPEC as a "criminal conspiracy"; hard to see how a group of countries using their only real world asset to advance themselves is criminal, exactly).

And the government will put a little seed money out there, and new technologies will just emerge, seamlessly replacing our petroleum-based culture. It will be multi-modal so we'll never have that ultimate dependence again, with windmills and solar panels on houses, nuclear plants doing the heavy lifting (we'll worry about the waste and China Syndrome problems later), worthless plants being converted into alcohol, cars being plugged into existing wall sockets, and so forth. We'll never even notice these changes.

And the jobs, oh, the jobs that will explode out of this new technology. Our well-prepared high-tech workforce will install windmills and solar panels, will operate our nuclear installations, will drive ethanol and liquid hydrogen from place to place, creating prosperity and riches for all. Won't that be great?

Now this all could happen; we could be just going through a difficult hump period on the way to low-cost energy, and all the rosy predictions of the happy people could come true. But what if they're wrong?

Isn't it possible that we already have the best fuel source we're ever going to see in petroleum? Right now, we can take about 6 pounds of a substance, put it into a reasonably simple piece of machinery, and propel ourselves, our family, our groceries anywhere from 15 to 40 miles. That's pretty astounding when you think about it, and it's not clear that any of the replacements will offer such convenience.

What if any of the replacement technologies (and let's just focus on transportation at the moment) require massive changes to the way we live? Perhaps we can make solar power work for vehicles, but the physics is such that it will only work for buses of 20 or more people. Could we change our society enough to make this work, perhaps by having company towns that would collect suitable numbers of people and deliver them to the office?

What if we could make nuclear cars, but every week we'd have to go to the atomic fuel station and wait four hours for the waste to be removed and new fissionable material inserted? This would be a major change to the way people live.

I'm not saying the foregoing scenarios are true, but it seems likely that a society and an economy built on cheap efficient gas will have to change in some ways when gas is no longer cheap or even existent. We're already hearing that some of the more extreme exurbs are running into trouble, as the predictions of vast housing developments and more schools are being brought down by the reality that people don't want to pay $20 a day to get to work. A few people are talking about the changes that will be needed, a retreat to cities with higher-density housing, but most of this talk isn't getting into the press.

Two more thoughts here. First, something I've written about before, this idea that new wonderful jobs will emerge from the energy crisis. We may see more jobs for people like solar panel installers, but it's unlikely that those will fuel a need for the higher education that everyone touts. The real issue is, how many incremental jobs will there be, and what will they pay? If the big petroleum industry scales back, that's a loss of jobs - how do we know the new jobs will replace them, either in number or pay? We don't. The same pressures that drive businesses to cut costs and keep salaries low will be no different in the brave new world of energy, so it is not yet clear that we will see a boom.

Second, people seriously underestimate the costs and challenges of building an infrastructure. This comes from an ignorance of history. People believe that the car was invented, and, the next day, there were gas stations and high-speed highways spread across the land. Of course, that's absolutely untrue. Even with the very fast acceptance of the motorcar and powerful financial incentives, it took decades for the infrastructure we take for granted to emerge. Do we know how to build tanks that hold liquid hydrogen on a vast scale, put them under the ground at every intersection, and meter them as the H is pumped into our cars? Maybe it's easy, maybe it's not, but this is the real engineering that comes after the invention, the hard work of making science usable for millions of people. I think we're minimizing the complexity of this effort.

[Need I even mention that the engineers who are likely to figure these solutions out are probably not in this country? Our neglect of promoting science in favor of our financial/marketing economy runs the risk of making us just as dependent on foreign resources as we are today.]

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