Since when was America a Can’t Do place?

Op Ed Piece: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/19/opinion/19herbert.html?ex=1374206400&en=74d94e8d32c652d4&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

analysis of Gore’s speech: 

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/18/washington/18gorecnd.html?ex=1374033600&en=ee808b90c1bace5b&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

Today is the 39th anniversary of the seminal human achievement, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s landing on the surface of the moon.  Kennedy wanted it done, and 450 billion dollars and 9 years later, Neil popped the hatch on the LM and stepped off the ladder and into the history books. 

Al Gore, 8 years late, finally grew some balls and has put forth an even more ambitious goal: 100% of America’s electricity needs provided from non-fossil fuel sources, in 10 years.  Can it be done?  Only one way to find out!

The great thing about that kind of plan is that it can be revised.  Both US and Soviet space programs suffered enormous setbacks (Apollo 1 fire, Nedelin catastrophe and failure of the N-1), which pushed back timetables.  Had NASA not been able to make the deadline of December 31st, 1969, they would have been able to land on the moon in 1970 … or 1971.  With real physical limits, you can’t push the deadline.  When Ghawar starts to run dry, or the sea reclaims Battery Park, that’s a geological limit.  You can’t stand before Congress and say "we need more time, and get it."

The United States has historically been known as the can-do place.  Unlock the secrets of the atom?  4 years.  Need to get men to the moon and back?  10 years.  World’s most expansive road network, the Eisenhower Interstate System?  look for the red, white, and blue shield–go in any direction and you’ll find one soon enough.

Unfortunately, sometime in the Era of Malaise (to use Carter’s term), American culture changed.  we’re not biting off the same kind of ambitious goals.  But it’s time to tackle the most important one–the future of humanity depends on it.

I think the conversion to sustainable sources of energy can be done.  To even move in that direction, enormous investments in infrastructure and research will be necessary.  Tax dollars, and tuition dollars, and private funds, at work!

Things we probably need:

  1. high-temperature superconductors
    – to move electricity from remote windfarms, geothermal plants, and solar installations to populated areas
  2. low-cost photovoltaics (preferably the spray-on kind)
  3. new power electronics, distributed generation models, and energy trading models
    – the eventual goal would be to make distributed generation with PVs or other technologies ubiquitous.  generate power on the roof, use it in the building, or the neighboorhood.  It’s not ethical or efficient to build a power plant somewhere where the residents don’t have the political clout to oppose it, then move the electricity to the city, at a 40% loss.
  4. energy storage systems
    – for cars, and homes way out there, there need to be better energy storage systems than batteries and ultracapacitors.  If only GM hadn’t abandoned the EV1, they’d be cornering the market, rather than teetering on the edge of insolvency.
  5. generation IV nuclear technology (keep on truckin’ Mike Short)
    – for the time being, nuclear does offer the advantage of not using increasingly scarce fossil fuels, nor does it release greenhouse gases.  It’s not a perfect solution, but one that has to be kept on the table for now.  the power density is quite high, and people have a lot of experience with boiling water and generating electricity.
  6. right of ways for windfarms
    – they gave railroads and highways right-of-ways, windfarms could use a governmental boost as well
  7. increasingly stringent efficiency standards
    – put the market system to work.  set the standards, or use taxes to encourage innovation.
  8. new way of thinking about energy

Last year our bike and build group stopped in West Virginia on the way across the country.  A very nice man was volunteering at the church, helping out with our stay.  A prosthetic leg was visible beneath his bermuda shorts, and he told me he lost his leg in a coal mine accident.  He said working in the mine was a great job–the pay was decent and they set him up with a prosthetic leg and a disability pension.  Personally, I’d rather assemble inverters or pack bearings for wind turbines than knock the tops off mountains, spoil the natural landscape, and lose my leg in the process.  Heck, I’d even take a pay cut, provided it paid a living wage, rather than paying well while there’s coal in the ground, then having the local economy completely dry up.

A concerted effort on the part of the government to enter a new era would provide many new good jobs, and set the US up for long term prosperity.  With energy costs no longer as closely tied to fuel costs, which will only rise, the economy can prosper, and the people won’t be poisoned or displaced by rising sea levels.  We would finally achieve the conditions necessary for the economic model under which we have been erroneously been operating for the last 150 years.

 

Had Gore proposed this plan in august of 2000, he probably would have been laughed off the stage, or assassinated.  Now, considering we’re in a much different place, culturally, economically, and in a different election cycle, let’s hope it goes.  Kennedy said in "we desire to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."  Let’s get that prairie plowing, rocket building spirit back.

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