Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Green Energy Fairy Tale is Real

How many decades have we been treated to a magical fairy tale of the future, where fantastic power sources like solar, wind, tidal, wave motion and maybe fusion will create a second Eden for us? It would be a world where unlimited energy provides a picture-perfect environment. Oh, but that’s not for now. Today we need wallow in the dirty world of coal and oil because those technologies are all that are practical with the technology we have at hand.

Every time I hear that, I have to look around to see if we are all dressed like characters in a Dickens novel. Are you kidding, Scrooge? We could rid ourselves of dirty energy right now... if we wanted to.

The problem is that we are living in a fog of our own making. I’m not talking about the haze that settles over Los Angeles and other major cities around the world due to air pollution. I’m talking about a mental fog that we can’t see our way clear of. Like many myths, it’s so ingrained and potent that we believe it with all our hearts and souls. The problem is that it’s just plain wrong.

Remember the Apollo Moon program? I do. As a kid, I liked to watch the rockets blow up every time they tried to launch one in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Then President Kennedy said we were going to the Moon and come back safely within the decade. So, we did.

Clean energy is a far more mature technology today than rocketry was in my youth. Everything you need to power your home or business from solar or wind energy is an off-the-shelf item with a manufacturer’s warranty. Hybrid cars with double the MPG ratings of their non-hybird equivalents are sitting in show rooms, shined up and ready to drive off the lot.

Oh, but those are just toys for people who are willing to pay through the nose to be early adopters. Aren’t they? No, Scrooge, this stuff is mainstream now. In nearly all locations there is enough sunlight that you can make your electric meter run backwards with just the spread of solar panels that will cover the roof of your house. I just saw a wind generator on sale at one of the big box hardware stores. My Camry Hybrid routinely gets twice the milage of my previous Olds Cutlass Supreme and offers the same power and even more cabin room.

What’s wrong here is that there is no national fervor yet for energy independence nor slowing climate change. If there was, what would it look like? Let’s try to see an alternative dream.

This is a dream where every home has a roof made of solar panels and an inverter connected to the power grid. You don’t buy electricity any more, you sell it. Your electric bill is zero. Every flat roof of a commercial, government, school, or hospital building is also beset with solar panels. They’re often hard to see from the ground, but from the air it’s one great sea of power panels. Out in the country, every farm has at least one windmill that provides a secure income for the farm families regardless of what crop prices are doing. A barn roof full of solar panels adds to that residual income and powers the farm.

This mass adoption on on-site power generation means those dirty coal plants can just be shut down or converted to natural gas peaker plants that run only as needed to supplement the green energy sources. Nuclear plants provide a reliable base load capability with no realistic threat of poisoning the public. Our one domestic close call was the Three Mile Island accident 30 years ago where nobody was hurt. But it spooked us so badly that we’ve shunned nukes ever since. About 40,000 people are killed in traffic accidents per year or about 1,200,000 dead in the 30 years since Three Mile Island and yet there’s no outcry to shun cars. See how powerful these mental fogs are?

The President and other world leaders are seriously considering another round of nuclear weapons reductions. So do we just chop those warheads up and hide the radioactive parts inside a mountain in Nevada? No way. There’s our bridge fuel to make the switch from dirty to clean energy. When we’ve transitioned, we can reprocess the rods until they are nearly non-radioactive and stow what’s left for future generations to learn how to harness.

We use about 9 million barrels per day of oil for gasoline. If we simply doubled the mileage of our vehicles by switching to those hybrids that are ready to go, we could cut that to 4.5 million, which is less than the 5 million barrels per day that we produce in the U.S. That’s energy security, plus we’d cut the greenhouse gas contribution from cars in half. The next generation of plug-in hybrids and electric cars will use even less in the way of liquid hydrocarbon fuels and will create only a pittance of greenhouse gasses if we are smart enough to generate the electricity from sunlight, wind, and nuclear.

That’s not all of the oil we use, but by what insanity are we still burning oil other than for transportation? A crash program to convert all oil fueled generating stations to natural gas and switch the Northeastern U.S. from heating oil to natural gas and/or electric would get rid of the need to scratch around for new oil wells and dramatically cut greenhouse emissions. This conversion project would be a good use for current and future national infrastructure investments. We’re talking a jobs program at a time of record unemployment, an efficiency improvement that will save business and residential users money on their heating bills, and a major reduction in pollution and global warming emissions.

So, do we put on our Victorian attire and pretend we’re still living in the 19th century or do we cut through the fog that’s holding us back and demand to make alternative energy our next national passion? If we pursued green energy with the fervor that got us to the moon, we could simultaneously solve our job creation, global warming, economic security, and energy production problems. The whole new can-do 21st century attitude we’d acquire would be a bonus.

Do you think that as a nation we could be doing a much better job of converting to new energy resources to stem the accelerating rate of climate change that is upon us? If so, you’ll find many more inspiring posts to read on Blog Action Day 2009 - Climate Change on Thursday, October 15. Visit www.blogactionday.org for suggestions on how you, too, can participate.

At T1 Rex's Business Telecom Explainer, we’re blogging on the subject of climate change the entire week. You may also enjoy reading our kick-off post, “Blog Action Day For A Less Toasty Tomorrow.”

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