Magical thinking always amuses me – “I can spend $2 trillion we don’t have, and it will help the economy.” Or, “The enemy won’t hear me if I say on national television that we are going to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.” Or the point of this essay, “We’ll replace oil and coal with algae.”
Can unicorn farts be far behind?
If this administration is serious about using government to aid our inevitable transition to moving beyond oil and coal, it would anchor that vision with a bridge strategy – something that can be used by today’s people, using today’s devices, with little or no modification and at an affordable cost. Anything else will prove disruptive to both families and industry, and will likely fail because of that.
If the transition is supported from fact-based grounds – that our current dependence on foreign oil is geopolitically dangerous – than the way forward clarifies. Streamlining the availability of domestic sources would be a smart first step. Futures markets are emotional, and the knowledge that we are getting serious about exploiting our own reserves (as well as clearing the way for the Keystone pipeline) will have immediate and lasting impact on spot oil prices. The reality is that it will take decades before oil and coal cease to be the main producers of energy in America, and pretending otherwise demonstrates a nearly clinical detachment from reality.
Our power grid needs immediate attention – it will not be able to handle expected increases in electricity demand, no matter how it is produced, and it is extremely vulnerable to cyberattack. We need to develop a national strategy to deal with both of these weaknesses, and government is best suited to lead in this effort – but not by doing anything, rather hosting panels of industry leaders to arrive at practical upgrades to the grid’s robustness and some sort of firewall that can be placed between the internet and powerplant controllers. DoD and NSA experts could be of help in the latter as to strategies and capabilities without compromising classified systems. This task will take a decade or longer, so we need to start on this right away. It’s hard to get political involvement in the real work involved because its not very sexy and they won’t be able claim credit for it, but it needs to be done before we go off in search of butterfly-powered houses.
Is there a bridge technology that can ameliorate our oil and coal use while we are researching replacement technologies? Yes. Natural gas can be used in most oil and coal applications – power generation and transportation. There are some applications for which coal and oil are still the best source – coking furnaces (coal), pharmaceuticals, plastics and cosmetics (petrochemicals), to name just a few – but large segments of power and transportation can be given over to natural gas, and natural gas is cleaner, cheaper, and it’s here. The technology is already in hand.
Then, all subsidies on energy production need to be removed, probably over a five-year period. This will put energy production on an even footing, having removed artificial blindfolds from the public as to which technologies can mass-produce energy at the best price – that’s the only criterion that comports to reality. As a sidebar here, it should be noted that corporate loopholes should be closed as part of a complete overhaul of our Byzantine tax code – with an eye toward broadening the base and leveling the rates. These two policies will result in a slightly higher base-price of energy – both for electricity and transportation – but it will finally be an honest price.