Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Energy Czar

I was green when green wasn't groovy. Okay, maybe green has always been a little bit groovy, but now green is down right mainstream. I have always been fascinated by science at some level and the little bit that we did in school regarding ecosystems, etc., was always fascinating to me. With a group of like-minded (and extremely groovy) students at my high school, we started a Save Our Earth Club. We recycled all manner of nasty cans; the Christmas tree we decorated in the commons still had its roots and was bedecked with a garland of thrown out dot matrix printer paper edging. We planted the tree in the spring.

In college, my love of things environmental intensified, particularly through my course of study and the time I spent in Logan Canyon. My first career job was teaching AP Environmental Science to a group of amazing students who made me look positively wasteful. Even when gas was $.93 at the Maverick in Layton, I bought the most fuel efficient car I could afford. I was then blessed above all measure to marry the like-minded Plantboy.

I'm not as green as I could be by any stretch of the imagination, nor even as green as I once thought to be. Just like nearly everyone else, I do things to be convenient, so disposable diapers are getting more and more to be the norm around here. I'm very good at recycling because our curbside program is so extensive here, but I'm not as good about keeping up with Plantboy's compost. In principle I'm against both fertilizers and pesticides on the lawn, but when the weeds got too out of control this week, I insisted on a weed killer (which doesn't come in the organic variety). I usually take my fuel inefficient SUV places, even when I just am hauling one kid, because changing car seats is such a pain . . . .

You get the picture.

All in all, I doubt I am much different than any well-educated and concerned person that I know when it comes to trying to minimize my impact on the planet. Lately, however, it seems difficult to get properly educated about what exactly DOES minimize one's impact on the planet. Scientific research in different quarters is sometimes in conflict and political spin on issues that should be scientific makes getting factual information almost impossible. Like many of you, for the past several months, I have spent some time pondering gas prices, food shortages, and even carbon emissions. I have heard information from lots of sources and have tried to form opinions. It can be very confusing to navigate the information (and mis-information) available.

So, recently, at our family reunion, when somebody looked at my father-in-law and asked him, "So, Dad, when the new president is elected, if he turned around and named you energy czar and you had the power to pass and implement policy what would you do?" I sat up and took note.

I have immense respect for my father-in-law. He is smart and spiritual and a great patriarch to his large family. My husband's still ways and even temperament come a lot from him I think. Because he tends to reserve opinion and judgment in conversation, when he does speak his words are usually carefully thought out and spot on. He is one of these people who is extremely smart, but is also wise in that he doesn't have to spend half his time and energy mouthing off so people know how smart he is. He graduated from BYU as a mechanical engineer in the late 1960's--the hot field in engineering at that time--with the promise of nuclear energy a big draw for many. He has, in fact, spent much of his career dealing with various aspects of nuclear energy. A concept I have been highly interested in for many years.

Paraphrasing what he said, I'll bring out the important points from the conversation:

(1) Invest heavily in building nuclear power plants. He explained that there are more than a dozen major projects in some stage of construction, though we are still a few years off from getting a single kilowatt of energy, even if the lawsuits were all blocked tomorrow. He advocates the use of breeder reactors (like they use in Europe with an excellent track record of safety and efficiency.) A breeder reactor is something like 90% efficient as opposed to coal at 60% at natural gas at about 30%. It was even suggested that the government pull funding from things like the Iraq war (which has only raised gas prices) and instead invest in these billion+ projects because few companies can put up the capital to get through the process. Like military contracts of the 80's, such investment would create a moving economy and jobs, both blue collar and professional. The magic energy bullet has already been found, but it has been co-opted by fear, which doesn't exactly fuel our homes or cars. He also pointed out that several prominent environmentalists are jumping on the nuclear bandwagon where they have always been adamantly opposed, such as the president of the Sierra Club.

(2) Require American auto manufacturers to begin mass-producing electric cars in the next five years, with the idea that by the time the nuclear power plants are up and running (providing cheap energy), most Americans would be driving electric cars on trips less than 50 miles.

(3) Allow no new homes to be built without Energy Star insulation and windows, but especially not using natural gas for anything but hot water heaters and stoves. Natural gas is just far too inefficient to run our cars or power our homes as the primary source.

(4) Require coal-fire plants to meet stringent, reachable requirements, but begin phasing these out entirely.

(5) Invest heavily in math and science education in order to create a new generation of engineers and scientists, much like Kennedy's declaration that America would put a man on the moon in a decade. The result? Millions in federal funding to bolster education. It worked. Think of how many of your parents went to college compared to how many of your grandparents didn't. This is the legacy of education being given a premium over other government spending.

(6) Find a way to balance ethanol and food production. Only use ethanol as a means to get from here to there, recognizing that it does have value as a renewable resource, but is not the most environmentally friendly option. Instead, emphasize wind and solar (cover Wyoming with windmills and southern Arizona with panels) over ethanol.

(7) Find any and all new sources of oil and drill, drill, drill to fill the gap in the interim between where we are now and where we can be 10 years from now if there is a major policy shift.

For those of you that podcast, download NPR's Science Friday dated 7/18 called "Exploring Realities of Offshore Drilling." It was so illuminating. The guest said something really profound. He said that oil companies don't make oil, they make profits, which is why most of them have quietly begun to pursue other avenues of energy production. "Easy" oil is a thing of the past. It is true that oil companies are reporting record profits, but it is also true that oil is getting harder and harder to bring to market. This problem is not going to go away. Even with a ban on off shore drilling lifted, many companies lack the will to drill thousands of feet into the places they'd be allowed to go. Europeans would call our $4/gallon oil a bargain.

Though what I've learned of both science and economics tells me that expanded offshore drilling will do very little to affect the price of oil tomorrow, and will only help slightly shore up our future supply (false hope, considering that we need a major change in thinking here), I still think that the Democratic Congress right now is wrong in not allowing this issue to come to a vote. If only because this ONE issue is affecting Barack Obama's polling numbers more than anything. The Democratic Leadership, by keeping this issue off the table, is hurting the impression that the Democrats are progressive, wanting to move forward, and willing to look at a variety of ideas. Agreeing to offshore drilling now might smooth the way into the public hearts for nuclear power plants later.

I'm still "green," and I think that there are wild places that need to be saved/protected (Alaskan wildlife refuge, the Everglades), but for most people, the morality argument for saving the environment is totally ineffective. Until it is an economic problem, changes cannot happen. $4 gasoline is a kick in the rear, but maybe this turn of events will finally teach us to be conservers instead of just consumers.


Chad said...

I think your FIL hit on a lot of good points and so did you. It is difficult to do all you can, and frankly in some circumstances, our time (what little of it we have) is better spent doing other things with our children. Having just moved to Houston I was shocked at how progressive their energy sources are. In So. Cal, you don't have an option when it comes to an energy provider because there is only one. In Houston we had to pick a provider and we got to see the source of the energy (coal, natural gas, etc.). For a few more bucks a month our house runs on 100% wind power. I was also surprised to find out that there are huge plans to cover west TX with tens of thousands of windmills. What?! Isn't this the oil state?!? However the recycling program here stinks.

It's a shame that energy and the enviornment is such a hot button political issue. But I guess that is the nature of politics.

PS We LOVE it here. The ward is great, the neighborhood is great, we just really like it. It is very hot, and the rain is no joke, but the pros far out way the cons.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

When we moved from Texas we took an awesome picture in the west--there is an oil derrick in the foreground, rusted out and unused, but in the background is a windmill moving at a fast clip. So cool.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

PS Found the picture. I'm adding it to the bottom of the post.

Christie said...

Where can we nominate your FIL for Energy Czar? He's spot on! My hubby has been behind nuclear power for a long time. Hearing the opinions about natural gas was interesting too. I liked living in Idaho Falls where electricity was generated by the falls -- which are also beautiful.

For your bug problems, I suggest chickens. No roosters. Just chickens. Most neighbors won't complain about one little chicken, and it can really gobbly bugs!

Yankee Girl said...

I want your FIL in. Wonderful post.

Dickey said...

Wow...and I barely get paper and plastics recylced in my little corner of the world. Thanks for the insight,

CaLM RAPIDS said...

I'm voting for your FIL. How come all of the really smart (as in wise) people are so overlooked. It takes a disaster to get those in power to notice and look for change.