Green Energy

There’s a lot of wrangling over green energy. I hear stupid things like Americans are “addicted” to oil vs. “Oh, there’s plenty of oil. It’s all just a communist conspiracy.

Here are a few things to consider.

  1. There is one inescapable fact about energy technology over the past 150 years: Technology trends inevitably toward less stinky. Coal stinks, prompting the original green energy technology: The internal combustion engine. No one’s ever gotten black lung from gasoline.  No one ever got it from diesel. In the meantime, what coal is still burned is scrubbed down to CO2, which now can be pumped into the ground.  As a result, the old technology stinks less.  But electric cars stink even less. Yes, they move the pollution factor to electric grid, but it’s a lot easier to replace a handful of power plants with something cleaner than it is to replace several million vehicles.
  2. The term “oil addiction” lacks intelligence. A heroin addict has a choice.  They might be psychologically or physically disadvantaged in exercising that choice, but the whole concept of rehab is built around that the idea that you go someplace to deal with the consequences of bad choices. Do you honestly think I’m going out of my way to burn gasoline? I drive a friggin’ Neon when I really want a Jeep Liberty. I want room. I get 32 mpg highway instead. When will I buy an electric car? When I can afford it. That’s not addiction.  That’s necessity.
  3. Really, people, some of you need to quit offended when people bad mouth the oil companies. And no, your stock portfolio is not justification for excusing some of the oil companies’ dumber moves, like taking a massive dump in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, I own Exxon stock. If I’m forced to use the product, I’m going to take some of that money back. Eventually, I’ll dump Exxon, but for now, I’m making them pay for the privilege of being the only thing on the menu.  “But isn’t that hypocrisy, Jim?”  No. Hypocrisy is whining that wind power is a communist conspiracy (If you’re paranoid about communists in 2011, you really need to go look at a calendar.  Joe McCarthy’s been dead for over half a century.  Let’s keep him that way.) or not taking a bicycle on a 34-mile commute is being selfish (No, it’s not being stupid, especially in this climate). I really don’t care if Ted Williams one day is tooling down the road in a Prius only to blow past the former CEO of BP holding a cardboard sign saying “Will drill for food or money.”  I don’t. Especially since that guy will never ever starve anyway. So who cares if they go under. Do you really miss Enron?
  4. Change happens.  Get over it.

The Tech Boom: Part Deux – Rise Of Alt Energy

I like Bob Metcalf for a lot of reasons.  For starters, he invented ethernet, which is a big chunk of what I do for a living.  Ethernet is also part of the underpinnings of the Internet, which lets me do a lot of things I couldn’t do before 1993.

Bob’s got a brilliant idea.  We need to overhaul our energy infrastructure.  There are a lot of reasons from climate change (if you don’t believe it by now, you’re an idiot) to national security (We start by telling Hugo Chavez to go screw himself and cap it off by laughing maniacally at Saudi Arabia and Iran when we don’t need their steenkeeng oil anymore) to obsolescence (Gasoline and diesel were the original green energy systems – in 1890).  But instead of building more big power stations and waiting for Washington to run up the deficit anymore, Bob says model new energy after…

Wait for it…

Teh intrawebs.

Yep.  Bob says we should be using the Internet as a model for overhauling our energy supplies.  Gotta say I love the idea.  Bob says…

“The world should be happy that a bunch of Internet people like me have turned their attention to energy because that’s how we are going to solve it.  It is easier to teach energy to people who are steeped in the entrepreneurial culture than it is to teach entrepreneurial culture to people who know energy. People who have worked for BP for 25 years have no entrepreneurial bones.”

True that.  And BP has a big jones for some sweet solar research cash, so you know we’re in trouble if they can’t pull it together.

That said, here’s what Bob proposes:

  • Rather than building large, centralized power plants we should build lots of smaller, distributed sources of electricity. “This may be the Internet’s killer lesson for energy: Go distributed!” Metcalfe says. Just as laptops replaced big mainframe computers, solar power on roofs or even small-scale nuclear plants can replace big, polluting coal plants.
  • Make the electricity grid a smart, two-way system, like the Internet, so that energy can move around freely. Everyone can be a buyer and seller of energy, just as everyone on the Internet can be a publisher or broadcaster or a consumer of media.
  • Bubbles are good. Speculative bubbles accelerate innovation. They did so around infotech and will do so with clean energy.
  • Don’t look to Washington for solutions. “Technological innovation is a war with status quo,” says Metcalfe. “And the status quo is big and mean and resourceful and they own Washington.”
  • But Washington can help by breaking up monopolies (AT&T and IBM before the Internet), reducing capital gains taxes to spur investment and sponsoring basic research.

Now granted, some things Bob does that I don’t want to do.

“I traded in my 12-cylinder Mercedes for a three-cylinder Mercedes,” he says, showing a photo of the pint-sized vehicle. “What I most like about this car is that I now own a six-car garage.”

Um…  Yeah.  Thanks, Bob, but I get claustrophobic just looking at those Smart cars.  How about I just pick up a used Chevy Volt when the Neon goes to the boneyard?

Then again, that’s a matter of taste.  While I wouldn’t want to go car shopping with Bob Metcalf (I have no use for a 12-cylinder gas black hole or a crash-killing Smart Car), I do like that he’s applying a little bit of that “new economy” thinking from the nineties (No, not the disappearing venture capital kind that triggered the last recession) to a major problem.

Maybe Apple can save Chrysler with that kind of thinking.  So where do I plug in my iJeep?

At $4 A Gallon, We Really Should Be Getting Off This Ride

The 1930’s had several infrastructure projects to drag us kicking and screaming out of the Great Depression (and promptly back into a recession in 1937, but that’s another story.)  The 1940’s had a world war and a world to rebuild to push the country forward.  The fifties brought us the Interstate highway system, the sixties the moonshot.  The eighties ended the Cold War while the nineties brought on the Internet.

See a couple of decades in there that are missing?  We did squat in the 1970’s, and we’ve done damned little in the 2000’s.  And hey, guess what!  The economy sucked worse in both decades than any time since the Great Depression.  You’d think the War on Terror would be paying us dividends in new technology and new businesses, but it hasn’t even paid off in dead terrorists, just a dead Bill of Rights.

Meanwhile, this past weekend, I just dontated the Wintermobile and the flex-fuel engine I was going to put in it (until my mechanic massively dropped the ball, though, thankfully, not the engine) so I could go buy a gas-sipping Dodge Neon.

I paid $40 to fuel up the little thing.

$40.

I used to spend that a month on the WIntermobile’s V-6.

This was the first time I actually bought a car because of its mileage rather than its functionality or price.  Oh, the Neon is roomy enough.  And at 26 mpg city/36 mpg highway, it’ll still be cheap when gas hits $5 a gallon.

It occured to me though that this may be the last fully gas-powered car I may ever buy, assuming nothing bad happens to it between now and the day I pay it off.

Or will it?

Barry, Hill, John, one of you is getting a new job in January, so you and your prospective sidekicks listen up.  This is your Civil Conservation Corps, your Liberty Ships and Marshall Plan, your highway project and moonshot, your new Internet.  You’re going to get us off the oil merry-go-around.

Now.

We’ve done enough hand-wringing and finger-pointing already.  Meanwhile, oil continues to head for $150 a barrel.  Even if that prediction turns out to be hysteria (which would not surprise me), there are too many reasons to keep making the CEO of Exxon happy.  Frankly, I couldn’t care less if Exxon’s CEO’s family starves and he has to live in a shack.  I still have to go to work, heat my house, and put food on the table.  He’s in my way.

There are too many things that should already be in the works.  For starters, we’re an oil society.  And we’re not going to get off oil anytime soon.  There’s oil in North Dakota, off the shore of Alaska (which, environmentalists, is not the size of Rhode Island, so quit playing the spoiled wilderness card.  There’s more wilderness than oil, and we’ll only need it for a few years anyway.)  We need to get off of oil, but we need to get off foreign oil first. 

There’s part of your energy policy.

And then there’s ethanol.  I think we all know by now ethanol is not a magic bullet, but it is a short term solution.  The more ethanol we burn, the less crude we need.  Hell, I’ll pay a little more for my Fritos if it means I get a cheaper, cleaner fuel that doesn’t make every city over 500,000 people in this country a terrorist target.  And here’s a cool money-saving idea:  If you legalize hemp to make all the stuff we used to make out of hemp before some dumbass Congressman watched Reefer Madness and decided hemp was evil, wicked, mean, and nasty, you suddenly have a cheap, easily grown source of biofuel.  It grows just about anywhere, makes great ethanol (better than corn and cheaper than sugar cane), and, since it’s inedible beyond seasoning hippies’ brownies, leaves the corn and sugar for putting food on the family.  Which would you rather have?  A few more potheads?  Or a few more Saudi-funded terrorists?

There’s part of your energy policy.

Electric?  GM and Toyota finally figured this one out.  The same batteries that run your laptop can be used to run your car.  Granted, they need to be a little bigger, but it beats those trunk-hogging lead weights that take longer to recharge than run down and have made electric cars next to useless for anything bigger than a golf cart.  GM has even stated that, even though not all the technology is here yet, they have to push for plug-in hybrids and electric cars.

There’s part of your energy policy.

Finally, anything and everything we have should be thrown at making this a hydrogen-based economy sooner rather than later.  We should be putting the same effort into making this happen as we did going to the moon.  And hey, whaddaya know!  We’ve got a moon program again that’s probably not as expensive in 2008 dollars as the original was in 1965 dollars.  Which means you can take some of those expired tax cut dollars and start funding hydrogen research.  We know it’s doable, just not how yet.

There’s part of your energy policy.  You listening Barry, Hill, and John?

I hear all sorts of reasons why this isn’t working now.  No one has ever sufficiently explained whether the obstacles can be overcome.  Well, no one’s told me anything credible.  Usually, I get “Well, this has this type of problem…”  (So what?  Everything has a problem.  Deal with it.) or “There really isn’t global warming.”  (Um…  Never mind.  If you can’t figure it out by now, you’re doomed anyway.)

All I know is I’m pumping $4 a gallon in my tank to pay rich executives who neither deserve it nor care about anyone but themselves and to countries that hate us.

And frankly, I’m sick of it.