Thursday, October 09, 2008

Thoughts on Energy Independence

Energy Independence is a topic that continues to come up in the current Presidential debate, but the details are not being brought out, even the proposals that I've seen online from the candidates seems to be missing something.

The energy that powers our nation comes mostly from domestic sources. Coal is the leading source, and Nuclear power generates up to about 20% of the power of the country, with the remaining power coming from Wind, Solar, and Natural Gas. Very little energy that is in the grid comes from oil, domestic or foreign.

The candidates keep talking about energy independence, and Obama is clearly choosing to state that we need to "eliminate our dependence on Middle Eastern oil". He's not even indicating that we need to reduce our usage of oil, just that we need to not get it from the middle east. I consider this a problem for our national security. I think for our nation to be more secure, we should be energy self sufficient. We should only use energy from sources that are local, and we should make those as clean as possible.

Petroleum is imported for use in products that we buy, such as vinyl and plastics, and for cars in the form of motor oil, diesel, and gasoline. The only way to reduce our dependence on oil is to make products that don't require petroleum. We need to replace those products that need petroleum with those that don't. We need to make cars that need less oil, or none at all. We could become a self sufficient country and have our vehicles still require gasoline, however, they would need to be efficient enough to allow us to only need what we can find in the U.S.

That's not likely though. We have a lot of people in the country, and a lot of cars. We need to make more of them that require no fuel. However, if all cars were suddenly electric vehicles, then we would need to be able to produce vast amounts of electricity to charge them.

There are alternatives available to reducing fuel consumption. Things that require lifestyle changes, and business process changes. I believe the government could encourage these behaviors with tax credits.

Work from home. We live in a very service oriented country. Many of the employees are people who sit at desks and talk on the phone, or type on a computer. If more of these people were working from home, then we would reduce the amount of travel needed for people. Reducing the number of people on the road to work at the same time also reduces the traffic congestion, which would mean less traffic jams, and more efficient use of the fuel for the vehicles that are on the road.

Live close enough to work to be able to walk or ride a bike. Tax incentives could be given to families that live within 5 miles of where they work. Sure some of them may still drive to work, but being that close they could walk or ride a bike.

Have satellite offices. Some of those same companies that could allow people to work from home, because they don't need to be on location to do their job, may have some restriction that would prevent them from doing that. However, they could instead offer satellite offices for employees. This could allow people to live closer to their work and be able to walk/ride a bike without having to deal with the traffic to get to a central downtown location. A small town office 50 miles from the city could be an ideal place for some of the employees to commute to. And with the price of houses in large congested areas, many of those employees may live much closer to that satellite location than the main office anyway. It again puts vehicles on the road moving in a different direction and reduces the amount of congestion.

Mass transit. More and better buses and trains could reduce the dependence on cars. Buses are generally used by cities for in town traffic. However, they could be extremely useful as commute buses from nearby towns. I would very much prefer to ride a bus 30 miles to work over driving to work. I could spend the time productively reading instead of concentrating on driving. This is only useful if the buses can run fairly full, and be on a decent schedule. However, I would think local communities and businesses could work together to make this a cheaper alternative.

Delivery services. Instead of everyone going to the store to buy their groceries, the groceries could be delivered. One van can easily hold the groceries for a dozen houses, cutting the amount of fuel used to 1/12th that of normal. That's 11 less cars on the road using fuel and producing harmful emissions.

Use Clean energy. Electricity although mostly from domestic sources, is still harmful to the environment. Coal power plants produce a lot of emissions. More importantly though, in order to use coal, it must be mined, and shipped to the location that it will be used, which each use additional energy. Nuclear energy is cleaner, somewhat. It doesn't produce carbon dioxide to harm the ozone layer that is the current concern, however, it does produce nuclear waste that we don't have a good disposal mechanism for. Nuclear plants also have a much larger risk than any other kind of power plant of being harmful to their immediate environment. There may be complaints that Wind Energy kills migrating birds and makes noise, but it does not cause 3 legged frogs, cancer, and death to humans. There will never be a hi-jacked airplane with the intention of crashing into a wind tower to cause destruction. Nuclear plants have that concern. Oil also has a similar concern. Hurricane Ike just blew through the Gulf of Mexico wiping out offshore Oil Platforms. There is no oil leaking into the water. That's not a clean thing, it kills fish and plants and eventually birds that live on those fish. It ruins food supplies for people. Clean energy does not do this.

We need to have less risk of harming the food we eat, and ourselves by using more solar, wind, geothermal, hydro-electric, and tidal energy. An additional benefit of all of the clean energy sources is that the ones that are most effective locally can be generated locally, but none of them require us to ship a product to another location in order to turn it into energy. All of these energy sources allow us to need less vehicles on the road to maintain them.

Use Negawatts. Borrowing the term from Amory Lovins, we need to use negawatt ideas. Clean energy is more costly and may not easily generate as much electricity. Even advances in the methods used to produce the clean energy will only help in small increments. Instead it is much cheaper to use products that require less energy. We need to retrofit our houses with more/better insulation. We need to replace our appliances with more efficient ones, and we need to continue to invest in technology advances that will continue to create even more efficient appliances.

It is this Negawatt philosophy that is behind the Compact Fluorescent light commercial that says, "if every household would replace one standard light with a fluorescent light, it would be the equivalent of removing 200,000 cars from the roads". That's only true in the amount of Carbon Dioxide that is emitted into the atmosphere. And it's also only true because the method that we generate electricity is mainly Coal. Replacing light bulbs while helpful in the short term with reducing CO2, it does not remove cars from the road, nor reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We need a comprehensive approach to all aspects of energy in this country.

Health Benefits. The incidents of Asthma in this country are rising. Some suggest that it's pollution and particles in the air that are causing this. I don't know how many other health problems are affected by pollution, but I'm sure there are some. Changing our energy to clean energy, and eliminating our usage of gasoline for cars could effectively eliminate some of our breathing problems as a nation. This will also reduce the amount of medical bills that people have, and reduce the number of people that are going to the doctor. All of this eases the strain on our health care system and should save us money both individually and collectively.