Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Even If There Is No Global Warming

Global warming is heating up. Regardless of what the atmosphere is doing at the moment, the rhetoric on climate change is getting hot and proponents on both sides of the issue are getting really hot... under the collar. The irony is that green energy makes sense regardless of whether we’re about to boil over or freeze our toes off.

Author John Shepler in front of wind generator farm at Paw Paw, IL.To be sure, the consensus among the most respected scientific minds worldwide is that the average temperature of the planet is increasing and our industrial age emissions of carbon dioxide are causing it. But for the sake of discussion, let’s say it isn’t so. Let’s say that we’re just riding natural changes in the climate that are driven by subtle variations in the sun’s energy output, wobbles in the Earth’s orbit, a rash of volcanic eruptions or whatever. What if any or all of these influences are really what we’re observing?

The best answer might be: “So what?”

There are really good reasons for us to behave like CO2 is bringing disaster upon our heads, regardless of the scientific connection. We need to change our relationship with energy or disaster will come down upon us and likely sooner rather than later. In fact, we could be in deep trouble long before Florida slips below the waves and it will have nothing to do with carbon-anything.

We are currently in the midst of one nasty recession that has had the side effect of buying us valuable time on both the climate and energy fronts. All those tankers parked in the Persian Gulf and the dearth of oil exploration are evidence that we’re not consuming energy, especially oil energy, at anything like the rate we expected a few years ago. Before people started throwing punches over global warming, the big fight was over peak oil. That’s the prediction that we’re draining old oil wells faster than we’re finding new ones to replace them. The forecaster was M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil researcher, who had the gall to announce in 1957 that U.S. oil production would peak in the late 60’s to early 70’s. A lot of well meaning dissenters thought he was nuts until, right on schedule, our production topped out in 1970.

Well, guess what? There is also a peak oil prediction for global oil production. By some expectations we should have already passed it. Most likely we’ve been spared by those nasty recessions that followed the bursting of the tech bubble and now the housing bubble. It’s just a short term reprieve, however. As soon as business starts kicking back into high gear we’re going to realize that we’re strapped for oil and those $4 and $5 a gallon gas prices will be back in no time. Perhaps worse, as we’re doing nothing to increase the supply at the moment.

To be sure, we’re not on the verge of running out of oil anytime soon. What we’re on the verge of is running out of the cheap, sweet, light crude that we’ve all come to know and love. Half of it is still in the ground, but there are a lot more of us who want it and the price is going to spiral upward as we try to outbid and perhaps out shoot each other to get it. What’s in plentiful supply are the gooey tar sands and other thick sulfur-laden muck that cost a fortune to turn into the nice sweet light gasoline and diesel that won’t clog up your injectors.

The choice we’re facing is to persist in slugging it out over the remaining oil reserves and keep coming up with more and more money to get it one way or the other, or break the cycle by moving off oil and onto something more promising before the situation is totally hopeless. That something is green energy. A generation ago, solar panels and wind generators were scientific curiosities that only made economic sense in unique situations. Now they’re in mass production with costs that can be easily be paid back within the lifetime of the equipment. Are green sources as cost effective as coal, oil and natural gas? Wind is almost at parity, with solar not that far behind. We haven’t even started to tap wave and tidal energy for coastal cities, nor geothermal for areas where it’s boiling hot close to the surface.

Even if all we do is keep squabbling, the production learning curve will continue to reduce the cost of green energy until it becomes the obvious choice. Wouldn’t it be smarter to embrace the change now and gain the advantages sooner? Green energy gives us an unlimited source of power with energy that is naturally provided by the Sun (solar and wind) and the Moon (tidal). There’s no worry about investing in “dry holes.” It gives us national security in that no other country can take away our sunshine and breezes. Any money we invest in the generating equipment and maintenance, we could be paying to ourselves. That’s domestic security, a reduction in the portion of our national debt that comes from paying for foreign oil, and employment that is easy to keep on-shore.

Green technology and manufacturing practices also give us efficiency improvements that result in less energy needed for a given process and lower costs through recycling, rather than always starting with mining raw minerals and ending with paying to bury perfectly good processed materials when we’re done with the product.

Green energy production and green product technology complement each other. From an efficiency standpoint, they “pull in the same direction” and accelerate the cost and supply advantages we’d gain over industrial-age technologies based on fossil fuels. It’s a win-win situation and, if we’re smart about it, we’ll be the winners.

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