Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Energy Independence Is National Security



I know this sounds like a bumper sticker, but it is nonetheless true that energy independence is National Security. We all know this intuitively, but we as a nation quail at the prospect of any sacrifice, however modest, except when it's someone else's children doing the sacrificing.

Before you protest that we're up to the task, please read my list of minimal recommendations below. I personally don't consider any of these suggestions a sacrifice, I consider them all improvements I would barely notice, but then that's because I live like a poverty-stricken college student.

(I am still learning but pay tuition only in the School of Hard Knocks.)

To achieve energy independence, the U.S. needs to cut consumption of petroleum from 21 million barrels a day down to 10-11 million barrels a day (MBD), and quickly. The ignorant cheerleaders (many of whom seem to have gained elected office) are always yammering about "endless new sources of energy" but under close examination with basic high-school science, every single "miracle source" turns out to have real-world limitations.

I have covered some of these limitations in the past few months, and will mention just two (again) of the most popular "miracle cures to our need for more energy:" shale oil and coal gasification. Canada and the U.S. have hundreds of years of shale oil, tar-sand oil and King Coal, we are constantly told, yet in a peculiar oversight, nobody seems to mention that turning these hydrocarbons into liquid fuels is horrendously energy-intensive, complex and limited by physical constraints.

The best estimates by those who actually know about moving entire mountains of shale and tar sand, heating it up with vast quantities of natural gas, etc., is that total top production will reach about 2 million barrels a day--about 10% of the oil the U.S. consumes (not to mention Canada's consumption).

Gasifying coal sounds like a neato-peachy-keen "solution to our energy shortage" until you go to a vast Western strip mine and take a look at the infrastructure needed to make a paltry 2 million barrels a day. The notion that we can turn billions of tons of coal (yes, we already burn a billion tons of coal a year, and China burns 2 billion tons) into 20 million barrels of liquid fuels is simply absurd.

Like many of you, I think nuclear power technology has advanced (like all other technologies) since the 1960s designs which are in operation today; to dismiss nuclear power out of hand is another form of ignorance, especially when you consider the alternatives, like $300/barrel oil going to $1,000/barrel. (Yes, it could.)

But it will take years to build 100 more nuclear power plants, and they do, after all, only generate electricity, not liquid fuels. And yes, we can move to hybrid vehicles and electric tractors but those lithium-ion batteries are costly to make and replace; as the saying goes, there is no free lunch.

So the only practical solution is to aim for heretofore "impossible" (in the minds of politicos and pundits) efficiencies and conservation techniques. Yes, do with less. My goodness, how un-American that sounds, eh?

Meanwhile, back in the real world, America's decline can be laid squarely on our lack of a coherent energy policy and our bloated, undisciplined spending.

I strongly recommend reading the current issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine which addresses this question: Is the American Era Over?

This is an Establishment journal, to be sure, (IMO the best) and it is extremely telling that the lead articles clearly articulate that energy and political stalemate are the two key causes of U.S. decline.

Let's start with
The Age of Nonpolarity: What Will Follow U.S. Dominance (by Richard N. Haass)

By both what it has done and what it has failed to do, the United States has accelerated the emergence of alternative power centers in the world and has weakened its own position relative to them. U.S. energy policy (or the lack thereof) is a driving force behind the end of unipolarity. Since the first oil shocks of the 1970s, U.S. consumption of oil has grown by approximately 20 percent, and, more important, U.S. imports of petroleum products have more than doubled in volume and nearly doubled as a percentage of consumption.

This growth in demand for foreign oil has helped drive up the world price of oil from just over $20 a barrel to over $100 a barrel in less than a decade. The result is an enormous transfer of wealth and leverage to those states with energy reserves. In short, U.S. energy policy has helped bring about the emergence of oil and gas producers as major power centers.

President Bush has fought costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, allowed discretionary spending to increase by an annual rate of eight percent, and cut taxes. As a result, the United States' fiscal position declined from a surplus of over $100 billion in 2001 to an estimated deficit of approximately $250 billion in 2007.

Perhaps more relevant is the ballooning current account deficit, which is now more than six percent of GDP. This places downward pressure on the dollar, stimulates inflation, and contributes to the accumulation of wealth and power elsewhere in the world. Poor regulation of the U.S. mortgage market and and the credit crisis it has spawned have exacerbated these problems.

All our natural advantages are being squandered by our painfully visible political dysfunction:

The Future of American Power: How America Can Survive the Rise of the Rest (by Fareed Zakaria)

The problem today is that the U.S. political system seems to have lost its ability to fix its ailments. The economic problems in the United States today are real, but by and large they are not the product of deep inefficiencies within the U.S. economy, nor are they reflections of cultural decay. They are the consequences of specific government policies. Different policies could quickly and relatively easily move the United States onto a far more stable footing. A set of sensible reforms could be enacted tomorrow to trim wasteful spending and subsidies, increase savings, expand training in science and technology, secure pensions, create a workable immigration process, and achieve significant efficiencies in the use of energy.

Policy experts do not have wide disagreements on most of these issues, and none of the proposed measures would require sacrifices reminiscent of wartime hardship, only modest adjustments of existing arrangements. And yet, because of politics, they appear impossible. The U.S. political system has lost the ability to accept some pain now for great gain later on.

As it enters the twenty-first century, the United States is not fundamentally a weak economy or a decadent society. But it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics. What was an antiquated and overly rigid political system to begin with (now about 225 years old) has been captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media, and ideological attack groups. The result is ceaseless, virulent debate about trivia -- politics as theater -- and very little substance, compromise, or action. A can-do country is now saddled with a do-nothing political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving. (emphasis added-CHS)

And just to remind us how effectively oil fuels conflict:

Blood Barrels: Why Oil Wealth Fuels Conflict (by Michael Ross)

Drum roll please: here are a few obvious ways to encourage conservation and making the U.S. far more energy-efficient. I know, I know, none of these are politically viable; we'll just have to watch oil go to $300/barrel before Americans will get off their duffs and start dealing with reality. But hey, it's fun to dream:

1. start supporting basic research on efficiency and alternative energy on a much larger scale. Take a look at this chart of Federally-funded research:

Here is the source article in the San Francisco Chronicle: Dan Kammen: Clean energy and America's future.

Yes, the "marketplace" is responding with its own investments but the "low cost" of oil is driving pernicious "incentives" to rely on "cheap" coal and oil. The problem is that when these "cheap" sources of energy become expensive, they will do so very quickly, and the vaunted "marketplace" won't have time to catch up.

Let's also not forget that the vast majority of technological advances can be traced back to government-funded research, work often done in University settings (like, say, nuclear technologies, the Internet, etc.), not "market-based" investment. Even most of the miracle drugs can be traced back to government research, not the pharmaceutical industry.

2. require all electronic/electrical devices to shut off rather than remain in power wasting "standby mode." Something like 5% of the entire U.S. electrical consumption is wasted by millions of transformers and inefficient circuitry in tens of millions of TVs, stereos, computers, etc.

3. mandate another round of serious efficiency improvements in all appliances. The supposedly efficient "market" did absolutely nothing about energy efficiency until the government (yes, the "evil, can't do anything right" government) imposed efficiency standards in the wake of the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks.

4. raise the mileage standards of all vehicles to 40 miles per gallon effective next year. Please don't tell me it's impossible unless you're an engineer with Honda Motor Company, in which case I would ask you to look at your own company's vehicles from 1972.

The ICE (internal combustion engine) I know best, the basic Honda CVCC, has risen from about 85 horsepower to about 120 HP in the past two decades, with a comcomitant decline in mileage (yes, some of that increase in HP is due to technology, but there are still trade-offs) . The current crop of Honda 1800CC engines could be scaled back to 1300CC with a reduction in unnecessary horsepower and a substantial increase in mileage.

And for everyone who whines that their SUV or truck needs 200 HP, recall that a Volkswagen bus (the original hippie SUV, van and truck combined) operated quite well (albeit slowly when ascending steep grades) with a 45 HP engine that was terribly inefficient.

A standard Honda-type engine of 1300CC would very easily generate enough horsepower (when properly geared) to power non-bloated pickups. Larger vehicles would work just fine with "larger" 1800CC engines producing 125+ HP.

The only real trade-off is a loss of acceleration. Autos and trucks have gotten bigger, heavier and faster, all at the expense of efficiency and mileage. Reverse those trends and you will see immediate reductions in transportation consumption, which accounts for 2/3 of U.S. oil consumption.

Smaller autos could be powered, as was the original Honda auto, with a modified motorcycle engine. As I noted in last Saturday's Quiz, a small 600CC engine now produces prodigious horsepower. Here is a video clip of a 1960s-era British car, courtesy of frequent contributor Michael Goodfellow, which operated with a 4.5 HP moped engine:

world's smallest production care (YouTube video)

I don't see much point in arguing the merits of "the marketplace" and the "invisible hand," etc. because I think it is painfully obvious that most truly important innovations flow from three sources: 1) basic scientific research funded without a specific market in mind; 2) research prompted by government mandates/regulations (see 1970s for case histories) and 3) non-industry fringe crazies/tinkerers who are pursuing "insanely great" (Steve Jobs' famous phrase) ideas with no support from either the government or existing dinosaur industries.

The tinkerers/crazies will always be around, but the dinosaurs need a sharp stick in the rear end to get moving.

One other "issue" drives me crazy: the "safety" of smaller vehicles. Look, 68% of all teenagers killed in auto crashes are killed because they weren't wearing seatbelts. (You can look it up.) Over 15,000 Americans are killed every year by drunk drivers in all sorts of vehicles, and yet there's hardly a peep about the "safety" of letting habitual drunks get back behind the wheel again until they finally kill some poor innocent. Other countries (like the European nations) aren't so blind and heedless to this known "safety risk": in many other countries, one drunk driving arrest means the end of your driving days, period. It's over pal, no "traffic school" for you. You're on the bus or train for more years than you can count on your fingers.

So please don't wring your hands about the "safety of smaller cars" when most people killed in vehicular accidents are killed regardless of the size of their vehicles: by falling asleep at the wheel, by drunk drivers, or by not wearing seatbelts. And when there's not enough gasoline to go around, then that big safe vehicle sitting in your driveway will be very safe because it's immobile.
Worrying about small car safety when 15,000 people are needlessly slaughtered every year by drunk drivers is like worrying about rattlesnakes when a tornado is bearing down on you.

5. lower speed limits to 65 MPH and enforce the limit. This is the easiest, most obvious way to boost mileage by 10-20%--lower speeds from 75+ MPH to 65 MPH. We'll all still get there, believe me. Just as an experiment, the last time I drove home from Los Angeles (380 miles) I drove about 65-67 MPH most of the way. I wasn't in a big hurry, thiugh it certainly seemed like everyone else was; most of the vehicles whizzing past were traveling in excess of 80 MPH. (This was at night, by the way.)

The slower pace added about 20 miutes to a 7-hour drive, but is this really the end of the world? Meanwhile, because we keep our 1998 Honda Civic properly tuned and the tires properly inflated--not exactly brain surgery--I got about 42 miles per gallon in a standard ICE production engine with 10-year old technology--more than most hybrid cars which cost much more and require hideously costly batteries.

If Honda cut the engine size and HP down a bit, I could probably get 50 MPG without any reduction in driving pleasure or convenience. And so could everyone else. And I'm 6 foot 2 inches tall, so please don't tell me you need a huge vehicle. (The guy in the video link above is 6 foot 5 inches tall.)

6. close entire streets to vehicles, creating safe, convenient bikelanes. My brother-in-law and I took a pleasant bike ride recently, in honor of his visiting us, and our 40-mile roundtrip (70 KM) ride on marked bike lanes eventually took us onto the shoulder of I-580--a freeway. I am not kidding--the bike lane merged onto the shoulder of a freeway for quite some distance. A single sign marked "share the road" with a bike logo on it denoted that the drivers whizzing past should not think the two bicyclists were insane and should be arrested. Was that part of the ride enjoyable? Do you reckon?

This is in "astoundingly environmental" California.

We all know Americans are too fat for their own good, and riding a bike is, for at least much of the year in most of the country, a convenient way to get about. (You can always put on a rain slicker like people do in other countries.) But it's only pleasant and convenient if roads are closed to cars and trucks. Yes, such closures would impose a burden on vehicles, but the time for wimpy half-measures like bike lanes on freeways and busy 4-lane roads is long past.

7. subsidize bus, train ans subway rides with a $1/gallon tax on gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. To repeat: the time for wimpy half-measures like subways and trains which cost a bloody fortune to ride is long past. If we want to modify behavior to conserve energy, then we have to make it nearly free to ride a bus, train or subway and very dear to drive a car.

Yes, you can argue about commutes and how big the West is and fairness and exurbs and all the rest, but it's really very simple: if it's nearly free to take public transport or carpool, people will do so and find some way to get to the station or pickup point. Ditto for carpools and other huge, practical, behavioral (not technological) efficiency-boosts. Even a 15 MPG SUV becomes efficient when there's six people being transported in it.

8. make building in the distant suburbs/exurbs either impossible or extremely expensive, and make building more low-rise housing in the city and inner ring essentially quick and cost-free to developers, non-profit and for-profit alike. I happen to live in a college town with population densities rivaling Hong Kong (in the south of campus area), yet there are very few buildings over three stories in height. You don't need highrises to increase density, you simply need mid-height buildings (see Paris or equivalent European cities for examples; six-story buildings create a very liveable scale.)

It's a simple idea, encouraging people to live closer to their jobs, and yet we as a nation have created all the wrong incentives: it's been dirt-cheap to build 50 miles from the city but costly and tiresome to obtain permission to tear down an obsolete structure and build a liveable moderate-density building in or near the city.

You can probably add another 8 or 16 or 24 other obvious, non-fancy ideas which would require little real sacrifice. You want sacrifice? How about no light at night? How about cold water baths? How about walking 10 miles to and from school/water/work/market? This is normal life in much of the world; just how awful will it be to have a street without cars? Is that really so unbearable? How about a car which doesn't accelerate like a race car? Is that really such an immense burden that we can't bear to give it up?

Funny, nobody thought life was miserable and awful and wretched and they had to cry themselves to sleep in 1957; have you ever driven an old American pickup truck from that era, a truck with a simple engine and wood slats in the bed? They didn't exactly accelerate like greased lightning, yet somehow (breathlessly, we ask, how? How? It's impossible!) the farmwork and building got done despite a horrible, soul-draining lack of horsepower and acceleration.

Then fine, the world will take it away from us in it's own time--which will be sooner than most of us can possibly imagine.

Extra-special bonus idea: convert all large U.S. Navy ships to nuclear power plants. The U.S. Military uses as much oil as the entire nation of Sweden; surely there are some efficiencies which could lower this stupendous consumption (along with curtailing U.S. involvement in Iraq.)

New Readers Journal commentaries:

18 diverse, thought-provoking comments on an amazing array of topics! New (in-depth) Readers Journal Essays:

The Rise in Oil: Speculation or Uncertainty?
Harun I.
PERHAPS 60% OF TODAY'S OIL PRICE IS PURE SPECULATION (Financial Sense): The author wages a largely rhetorical argument. I won't argue that there may be a bubble building in energy futures but the causes he presents is suspect.

The Third Worldization of the United States Is In Process
Robert Roth

The U.S. and its economy may be said to have been in a process of "Third Worldization" for some time, from a variety of perspectives. One of the more striking, to me, is the fact that recently an authoritative source suggested the U.S. may (in ten years) lose the AAA rating its debt has enjoyed since ratings began.

Thank you, Ana S. ($50), for your wondrously generous contribution to this site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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