August 27, 2008

Time for a Bridge to the Energy Future?

Popular Mechanics explains why we need to keep all alternatives on the table right now, and get government out of the way as much as possible. And all those analogies you keep hearing to the early heyday of NASA, and putting a man on the moon? James Meigs tells us why they don't really apply:

Yes, the moon landing was a towering achievement. But, as aerospace analyst Rand Simberg notes, it was also a "well-defined engineering challenge, and a problem susceptible to having huge bales of money thrown at it." Retooling America's energy infrastructure is far more complex. It isn't one challenge, it's thousands—a total overhaul of the American lifestyle involving deep changes in every home, vehicle and business in the country.

Anyone who believes we should put all those myriad decisions in the hands of government officials should take a close look at NASA. No, not the agile NASA of the Apollo years, but the ponderous space agency of recent decades.

After Apollo, NASA set out to build an affordable, reliable vehicle that would make space travel routine. Instead, we got the shuttle, a delicate, dangerous craft that flies infrequently and costs nearly half a billion dollars a launch. So, while NASA still accomplishes some great things, it's hardly a model of efficient, long-term problem solving.

Before we decide that a bigger, better energy policy is going to fix our troubles, we should recall that the United States has had various energy plans since the Nixon administration. Unfortunately, such policies have often made things worse.

Look at natural gas. In 1982, Congress banned offshore drilling in virtually all U.S. waters. In addition to limiting our ability to produce more oil, that put at least 76 trillion cu. ft. of potentially recoverable natural gas off-limits.

And that's a shame, because natural gas is our most attractive major energy source right now. Solar and wind power are promising, but so far they've barely made a dent in our use of oil and coal. Natural gas is a practical alternative, and relative to other fossil fuels it's clean to produce and burn—and it releases much less carbon into the air. It can drive factories, heat homes and even, as Pickens advocates, power vehicles. But we're producing far less than we need.

. . . . Coal has been a national priority ever since Jimmy Carter put on that cardigan. Yes, coal is plentiful, but it is an environmental headache all the way from strip mine to smokestack.

Then there's ethanol. It was less than a year ago that leaders of both parties decided that ethanol made from corn would be a brilliant alternative to foreign oil. Speeches were made; sweeping mandates passed. The result? Food prices went through the roof—and energy prices did, too.

Where would a more sensible energy policy start? Pickens is on the right track with his plan to increase use of natural gas. And McCain's call to allow more offshore drilling would significantly increase production. Alternatives such as wind or solar look better by the day, and, indeed, every major energy plan stresses them. But, it will take decades for the alternative-energy infrastructure to match our needs. We must have those offshore oil and gas reserves to bridge the gap.

The government can play a role in advancing alternative energy. Tax incentives and regulatory relief can help. So can research money channeled through the National Science Foundation or DARPA. But let's tread lightly when it comes to giving handouts to corporations in the name of research. Obama's promise of billions in development funds sounds enticing. But who gets those dollars? It wasn't too long ago that investors and politicians alike regarded Enron as a brilliant innovator in the energy field. If copious research funds had been available in Enron's heyday, its executives would no doubt have found a way to pocket a share.

. . . In fields ranging from batteries to biofuels, there are hundreds of promising research projects under way. Some will succeed, some won't. But we need scientists, entrepreneurs and consumers to pick the winners, not politicians. Finding solutions to our energy problems isn't rocket science. It's a lot tougher.

Read the whole thing; it really is a beautiful summary of why we have to stay flexible, and keep trying things until we hit on the handful of solutions that will be most useful 10-20-30 years down the line.

Via Glenn Reynolds at PJ Media and the Sean Hackbarth of the Senate GOP's media room. (Sean's own blog is, of course, The American Mind.)

Posted by Attila Girl at August 27, 2008 09:34 PM | TrackBack

Maybe Barack will talk about this from the
"Acrapolis"--that little temple he's constructing for his Accession. Or he will talk about the 300 'thousand' Spartans on the Plains of Thermopylae. That's about equal to the number of his advisors, isn't it? And they still can't screw in a lightbulb. I made a
Bic lighter during the 70's that had an enema hose connected to it that recovered methane right from a natural source. Better restart that business now. Think Ms Pelosi would offer me a start-up grant? Or is she only interested in drilling heads nowadays?
Hey, if I applied the same principle to a cow, she could power her gas cooking range. And get some carbon credits too for the greenhouse gas reduction. I might have a gold mine on my hands here.

Sorry for the rant, I just wanted to document the term 'Acrapolis' before someone else did. You have to protect ideas like these.

Posted by: Darrell at August 27, 2008 11:26 PM

Copyrighted: 2008, Darrell, International Man of Mystery . . .

Posted by: Attila Girl at August 28, 2008 03:41 AM

Amazing site.
Thanks, webmaster.

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