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Thursday, August 28, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 12/22/2001

It's time to reassess long-term use of energy

BY ALVIN D. COMPAAN

9-11.

We've responded to the immediate shock. We have given blood, donated money, offered words of comfort, prayed for the loved ones of those killed and injured. The bombs are falling in retribution.

But what should be our longer-term response? How do we get at the roots of terrorism and guarantee our security?

Many foreign policy issues appropriately are being re-examined, including economic and military aid. However, I would like to discuss here an internal, national response that can allow us to seize the ethical high ground, to be proactive rather than reactive, and to identify actions that can facilitate our own personal and national healing.

One of our greatest opportunities for effecting positive, long-term change is to re-evaluate our use of energy. Energy for transportation, energy for electricity generation, energy for manufacturing, energy for heating and lighting our living and working spaces.

Energy use is not the whole story, of course, but there is at least an indirect connection to terrorism. It is no accident that many terrorist groups are rooted in the Middle East, which just happens to be the source of much of the petroleum driving our economy.

Our insatiable thirst for foreign oil costs $200,000 per minute! Two and a half minutes of this addiction could have financed the estimated $500,000 it cost the terrorists to launch the Sept. 11 attacks.

The longer we continue this transfer of wealth to the oligarchies, monarchies, and dictatorships of many of the oil-producing countries, the more intractable terrorism becomes. We are a society profligate in our use of energy.

And because we waste so much, we are constantly seeking more oil - from the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, from our Gulf Coast, from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, even Papua New Guinea.

But petroleum supplies are finite; ANWR only buys a few more months. Petroleum imports account for most of our balance of payments deficits.

Many argue that, with no viable challenge to our military strength, the main reason for keeping a large military is to be able to guarantee access to international oil supplies.

We must renew our commitment to sustainable energy practices that once, briefly, became a major concern of the U.S. After the dual oil price shocks of 1973 and 1978, we and the other industrialized nations became much more efficient in the use of energy.

Homes were reinsulated; corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards led to doubling of auto fuel efficiency to about 25 mpg; refrigerators today are bigger but more than twice as efficient as they were in the 1960s. However, as gas prices came down, we lost our focus.

The average fuel economy of today's cars and light trucks, vans, and SUVs is the lowest in 20 years! Not because Detroit (and Toledo) built less efficient engines and transmissions, but because we individually chose to buy fewer sedans and roadsters, and ever-larger vans and SUVs.

We can immediately reverse the slide in CAFE by buying the more fuel-efficient vehicles already on the market. For the longer term we must challenge our governmental representatives to set high standards for the automakers to build lighter, still more fuel-efficient autos.

The technology exists for safer and more efficient cars whose fuel savings will largely offset the extra purchase price. The technology exists to raise CAFE standards, not the measly 1 mpg of currently proposed legislation but to 40 mpg by 2010 and to 55 mpg a few years later. These goals need not cause disruptions if reasonable lead time is provided, but we must act now. It might require an increase in gas taxes to provide incentives, but I think we are all prepared to adjust our lives a bit in honor of those who lost theirs on Sept. 11.

Major long-term progress will require exploiting the exciting new technologies, such as hybrids and fuel cell/electrics, that will not only yield high efficiency but allow operation totally free from fossil fuels.

Renewable sources of electricity such as hydro, wind, geothermal, solar, which are available in abundance, can be used to generate the needed hydrogen from water. When the hydrogen is used in fuel cells or turbines or piston engines the product is clean H2O and the recycling is complete.

Radical? Not at all. Already wind generated and hydro-generated electricity is cheaper than coal-generated and much cheaper than electricity from fuel oil and natural gas.

Solar electric power (photovoltaic) costs are headed down but already provide power cheaper than many peak load generators do. And when the costs of distribution are included, rooftop PV looks even better!

History suggests that the move to a sustainable economy free from heavy dependence on carbon-based fuels may actually be inevitable. Energy production trends since the 1800s show that from primary dependence on wood, the industrialized countries moved primarily to coal by 1900, to oil by 1950.

This 50-year cycle of transitions is now due for another renewal. From another perspective, the carbon fraction of our energy sources from 1850 onward shows a steady decline through the present as the hydrogen content increases.

A renewables-dominated source for hydrogen-powered electricity can bring the carbon intensity almost to zero. For such stewardship of natural resources there is an unexpected bonus that is particularly meaningful in the post WTC era.

Wind and solar are universal resources distributed around the globe without regard to political and ethnic considerations. Renewables are great equalizers among nations.

Furthermore, with electricity production distributed across neighborhood rooftops and modest-sized generating fields, the need is decreased for ugly and vulnerable high voltage transmission lines, the tempting targets presented by giant, thousand megawatt nuclear and coal generating stations, and massive, polluting oil refineries.

Other bonuses accrue. Distributed generation can lead to more reliable and “cleaner” electricity free of voltage glitches that can damage sensitive microelectronics.

Best of all, less coal and gasoline combustion will reduce not only carbon dioxide but also sulfur dioxide, acid rain, particulates, and radioactive emissions.

Interestingly, the Toledo-Detroit region already hosts several businesses and universities that are leaders in the development of such alternative power sources for transportation and electricity generation.

Now is the time for us to step up to the challenge. As consumers, we have the power to start the changes immediately; we need not wait for new government standards or mandates; these can come later.

By taking such individual, active responses we can honor the memory of 9-11.

We have the means as a nation to set a compelling example for the world to emulate and in the process help provide long-term security for ourselves.

But do we have the will?



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