Thursday, July 28, 2005

If I owned the Sun

Here's a Blathering from Jim Baumer regarding the energy policy in Nova Scotia (and here's the original link).

The gist of this article is that Nova Scotia’s energy policy was based upon assumptions of plentiful natural gas off Sable Island, which now appear to have been vastly overstated. Original estimates were that the Sable Island reserves totaled 3.6 trillion cubic feet. This estimate has been downgraded three consecutive years, with the current estimate being 1.35 trillion cubic feet – a 62.5% decrease. Based on this decrease (which I personally assume will continue to decrease), the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Think-tank issued a report recommending changes in the Nova Scotia provincial energy policy. These changes would focus on (drum roll please) conservation efforts and renewable energy sources.

Brilliant idea! Let the US government know, too!

Reading this article has me asking - once again – why the world’s energy policies are so focused on fossil fuels. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s a humongo ball of Hydrogen burning a scant 93 million miles away. Every day this ball of fire provides – free of charge! – sufficient energy to provide for much of the world’s power needs. Furthermore, technology exists today that can convert this raw source of energy into usable electricity. But instead of attempting to maximize the utility of sunlight (which, did I mention this?, is free), we continue to look for more places to dig and drill to extract coal, oil and gas from the earth.

Critics of solar power like to point out that converting existing infrastructure to alternative fuel sources is an expensive proposition. And it is. However, drilling a hole in the ocean floor in the North Atlantic and venturing further afield to find new sources (e.g. above the Arctic Circle) is also expensive. Furthermore, sunlight is abundant and will be available for billions of years to come. Once we make the investment in the technology to collect sunlight, the energy will be there forever. With fossil fuels, even when we get the equipment in place to collect the fuel, we really don’t know how much of it we will be able to extract from the source, however we do know that the source will eventually run out.

While technology is improving, solar power isn’t efficient enough to handle all of our energy needs on its own. Certainly most industrial applications draw more electricity than any practical solar implementation can provide. On the other hand, most homes could have most (if not all) of their electricity needs fulfilled with solar power. Increasing the demand for solar power would increase the incentive for manufacturers to improve the technology to get an edge in the marketplace. This effort would significantly reduce the need for fossil fuels, meaning our existing sources would last much longer than they will at today’s depletion rates. Which means that we have less incentive to harm wildlife breeding grounds in Alaska in order to run our plasma TV’s.

It seems like such a no-brainer that one might ask, why aren't we making every effort to maximize the utilization of renewable energy?

And the answer is, of course, "because nobody owns the sun." Government works to satisfy the needs of those who fund campaigns – the Kings of Industry. Because the cost is such a barrier for most people to install solar panels on their homes, the solar power industry doesn’t have the same kind of money to send to the politicians that the oil, gas and coal industries do. And because the oil, gas and coal manufacturers don’t benefit from the use of solar power, there is little incentive for the politicians to make policy to develop the solar industry. And because nobody owns the sun, nobody is going to get rich on its continued production of electricity.

If I owned the sun, you can bet your bottom dollar that I would be spending all kinds of money to make sure that my product was used in as many homes and businesses as possible. I would help fund every campaign within my legal power to do so. I would be saving the environment, and I would be getting rich beyond my wildest imagination. I wish that I owned the sun, because I would enjoy both of those outcomes.

But I don’t own the sun, and nobody else does either. What we need then is for people who already have a lot of money to invest in solar technology (and other renewable resources) and in political campaigns. Imagine, for example, that instead of spending money trying to prove that drilling for, refining and burning oil isn’t bad for the environment, a company like ExxonMobil were to invest in a facility that manufactures photovoltaic (PV) cells. Suddenly you have a company with a lot of lobbying clout, with a material financial interest in the expansion of solar technology. Badda bing! Instant government incentives for the solar industry. As an added bonus, they would have a product to sell once the oil fields dry up.

Of course, we’re probably not close enough to the end of the oil supplies that the big oil companies to concern themselves with what to do after it’s all gone. There are various models pointing to when this will happen, but it certainly will happen. I’ll refer you back to Jim Baumer, who writes fairly regularly about Peak Oil theories (and at Words Matter, too). I encourage you to also follow some of his interesting links. It will be the wise business person who will be poised to take advantage of the need to move from fossil fuels, ready with PV cells, wind turbines, biodiesel production and more. I’d like to see the social conscience of the United States and the world change such that the incentive to change happens sooner rather than later. But ultimately it will be dollar signs that create this change in the collective conscience. If you and I don’t create the demand for renewable power today, we risk the well-being of the Earth and its inhabitants.


Blogger Jim said...

I have thought for a long time that alternative energy sources might be a solution to our dependence on foreign oil, a long-term solution to fossil fuels, and a generally "friendly" way to fuel our ever-growing need to consume.

All of that's changed however. Without spending alot of time going into details, I'd urge you (and others) to read Jim Kunstler's, ,The Long Emergency.

Each summer, I try to read a book, or series of books to look at an issue I don't know alot about, or that I might like to take a different look at. Kunstler's is this summer's tour-de-force and it has altered how I view our long-term future.

I'd also suggest that reading about Peak Oil, with this site being a good start;

Granted, the Hubbert site is obviously looking to alternative energy sources as a solution. Kunstler, on the other hand says it won't work.

I'd like to think that if we could find a way to cut our consumption and develop alternatives, then everything will be ok. I'm not sure that's the case.

Well, there's some fodder to talk about the next time we get together for a wine tasting and dinner, eh?

1:36 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

I’ll have to get ahold of Kunstler’s book (after I finish Harry Potter, that is!). As you know, I have a strong interest in alternative fuels and conservation efforts. I’m interested in finding out why they won’t work.

This is how I see it. First of all, I’ll eliminate “reliance upon foreign oil” from the discussion, because that’s not really my central concern. We know that every additional kilowatt of renewable energy that we use eliminates the need (or, more accurately, delays the need) to consume fossil fuel. Every gallon of vegetable oil that we burn eliminates (delays) the need to burn a gallon of petroleum. At the very least, you’re extending the useful life of the fossil fuel reserves and diluting the environmental impact, correct? This can only be a good thing.

It kind of sounds to me that you are saying that Kunstler is saying that we can do “all the right things,” but an energy crisis is inevitable. I’ll certainly keep an open mind to that idea. But what I do know is that we aren’t currently doing all that we can do, and this is neither wise nor sustainable. If we’re going to go down in an energy crisis, we should be going down fighting. And that fight needs to start today.

Thanks for being the first person to comment at the Land Blog, Jim. When is the next wine tasting anyway?

2:18 PM  

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