Working on Sunshine
An oil well as a syringe is the arresting cover image for Nicholas Varchaver's 5188 word article in the current Fortune Magazine: "How to Kick the Oil Habit."
America's massive energy consumption unites worries about foreign, economic and
environmental policy, perhaps making it the problem of the 21st century
. As I noted back in July
, the inevitable conclusion of the yearly British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy
is that the planet will run out of oil around the end of the century. But even if we foolishly refuse to take such a long view, we only need look at the battlefields of Iraq, the asthma wards of Harlem and the price-signs at our local gas stations to know this is a problem we need to deal with.
Varchaver's Fortune article touts a four-step plan to reduce our usage of foreign oil. But it really boils down to a three pronged strategy:
1) Be more efficient (in Verchaver's article, step 1 is improving the fuel efficiency of cars
and step 2 is improving the energy efficiency of buildings
2) Develop "alternative fuels" like hydrogen fuel cells and cellulosic ethanol.
3) Pursue clean, renewable energy like solar and wind power.
Energy efficiency and lowering demand is a huge first step. If we decrease our total demand for energy, we won't have to look so hard for alternatives to Middle Eastern Oil. The Federal Government can get rid of the tax credit for SUVs, states can regulate them, and businesses and individuals can stop buying them and driving them everywhere. Similar strategies exist for buildings
and appliances, and all levels of society can pitch in. Varchaver writes, "Take refrigerators. Federal standards for their electricity use have had a dramatic impact. . . Nobody is sacrificing here: Refrigerators today are bigger, cheaper and better. And experts contend that we can get another 30% improvement in refrigerator efficiency. The government should keep tightening standards for appliances and other equipment rather than fighting them in court, as the Bush administration did in an attempt to block improved air-conditioner standards. (It lost)."
Varchaver touts hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels like cellulosic ethanol. He devotes a single line to the concern that makes most scientists groan when they hear the Administration touting hydrogen fuel cells: "The challenge--and part of what we need to spend money on--is developing the means to produce hydrogen from electriciy that is generated by, say, wind or the sun instead of fossil fuels."
Hydrogen-powered cars might make freeway air easier to breathe, but in the current system, building hydrogen-powered cars is only playing a shell game with the pollution--and the oil consumption. Instead of happening in your car, the combustion happens at the power plant that provides the electriciy necessary to create hydrogen fuel cells. They're really just very clean and nifty batteries. However
, if more cars were hydrogen-powered, consumers would have the option
of getting fuel-cells made with renewable energy as soon as that renewable energy becomes available. This is a very important point that Varchaver doesn't make. Right now my car has to burn oil and create smoke because that is how it is built; in order for me to stop my gas consumption I have to buy a whole new car. If my next car is hydrogen powered, it will still burn oil and create smoke somewhere
--but when solar energy electricity becomes more common, it will be much easier
for me to switch to clean energy without having to buy a whole new car.
Developing that cheap solar electricity is key. People love pointing out that solar energy doesn't work if the sun isn't shining, but they forget about batteries and fuel cells. According to this appendix to this pdf of the DOE's FY 2004 budgetary requests, the Bush Administration only wants to spend $80 Million on Solar energy research this year.
. To put this number into perpsective, consider just one aspect of our expenditure on Middle Eastern Oil. Quoting Varchaver, "Even during peacetime U.S. aircraft carriers and destroyers patrol the PErsian Gulf--at a cost of $50 billion a year, not counting the Iraq war, according to the conservative-laning National Defense Council Foundation. Add in the economic effects of oil shocks, the group found last year, and a gallon of gas actually costs more than $5." There is no reason for our commitment to solar energy research to be so low. It makes no fiscal sense, and it declares that we, as a society, have more faith in foreign monarchies than we do in American innovation and technology.