Recent acknowledgement by various sources, from governments and private foundations to political and social commentators that the rapid worldwide dissemination of cell phones is one of, if not the greatest, technological change in all of history. Its effect on communications and thus politics, economics and social behavior across virtually the entire planet has been even more dramatic than the implementation of cross country telegraph and undersea cable of the nineteenth century. It has connected people and ideas across all the earth’s continents and throughout both developing and advanced countries. The wide range and high speed of the spread of cell phone technology is due in significant part to the absence of the need to physically put an enormous amount of infrastructure in place. A relatively small number of microwave towers has replace the extremely large number of telephone poles required for conventional telephone or telegraph service. This has enabled the number of people to individually access modern communications to increase literally by the hundreds of millions and potentially billions.
There is another consequence of the cell phone explosion; there is much less need or motivation for the creation of a large infrastructure for the production and distribution of centrally generated electricity. At the same time the cell phone-digital world does create a need for some amount of locally generated electricity. The electricity needs in many developing societies however will not require the production of huge volumes of electric generation in the way it is used in developed countries; to light large cities, run big factories or power transportation systems to move millions daily. The world’s future electricity needs will have to be more scalable and designed for localized situations. The emphasis will be on local, clean, efficient electricity generation without the need for building huge expensive fuel storage and distribution facilities, extensive roadway systems, power plants and supply lines. It will also serve the interest of keeping developing countries and places from becoming dependant on the need for and subject to the cost of conventional fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas for generating electricity.
The future of electricity production will belong to the cleaner, infinitely sustainable, scalable and flexible methods such as wind, solar, water and geothermal. This will also be true for the modern nations of the world. After decades of worry, environmental consequences and war for many of the world’s nation because of the stubborn dependency on the burning of convention hydrocarbon based fossil fuels for producing electricity; the modern world can also benefit greatly and in many ways from conversion to modern forms of electric power generation. While the developing world can avoid the pressure being put on them to make the mistakes of the past in committing to the old carbon burning technology; the developed world must fight harder to get the iron fisted grip of those who control the old technology figuratively released from around our throats.
The carbon based industries have had almost a hundred and fifty year reign as the absolute monarchs of power generation. During that time they have build an integrated monolith of complete control over fossil fuel production from digging or drilling it out of the earth, through processing or refining it, to selling it to the energy supplier or consumer who does the actual burning of their product. They control the worldwide production, transportation, distribution and thus ultimate cost of their carbon based fossil fuels. And it has been a highly profitable century and a half for the carbon barons due to their closely held product monopoly and the extensive government subsidies and tax breaks their money has enabled them to secure. Needless to say they are loath to even consider giving up any of their cat-bird seat position when it comes to allowing the people of this country, or anywhere else for that matter, to move on to the much more desirable clean, safe, renewable methods of making the electric power we will need forever.
The ways and opportunities the fossil fuel conglomerates have of manipulating and influencing energy policy in the developed and undeveloped world are many and varied. And they are prepared to use them all to keep their grip on the world’s electricity generation and thus their cash flow. What appears to be an internal conflict between the coal and petrochemical branches of the fossil fuel brotherhood is merely a matter of battling for market share. The commitment to centrally generated electricity by the burning of hydro-carbons is something both industries are firm on and will use their power and money to see is kept in place. Within the petrochemical branch, they can manipulate the cost of oil based fuel and natural gas (which they also control) to make natural gas appear more attractive (temporarily). They can and are using this ruse to increase the commitment of the American domestic electric generation industry to natural gas. They can and will then raise the price from its current unprofitable level to the more than double export price; a highly profitable level. They cooperate with the current electric power generation and sales industry by appearing to support a few large scale solar farms, knowing that some environmentalists of narrow vision will fight these based on their unsightliness. However the electric sellers know the greatest potential of future of solar electric generation growth is in individual roof-top equipment which will diminish the profits of both the central power plant producer and the Enron style sales middlemen in electric power industry. And that is something all of the fossil fuel brotherhood and fellow travelers truly fear.
The petrochemical giants have for decades been fighting more efficient fuel automobile standards, which is a plus in cost and environmental protection for virtually all Americans; except them. They can be expected to try and roadblock the rapid expansion of both hybrid and all electric cars in ways both subtle and overt. Nothing is less efficient than the internal combustion engine (about 20% of the power actually getting to the wheels), so even with significant improvements in the technology, cars and trucks will still be an expensive means of transportation and environmental problem as long as they burn oil or gas. Trains on the other hand are a much more efficient way of moving raw materials, finished goods and people; hundreds of times as fuel efficient as autos and trucks. And it is exactly the much lesser amount of fossil fuel they use that has doomed them to a diminished role in American infrastructure development. Trains also have the advantage of being able to run on electricity in more developed urban environments, making them overall cheaper and cleaner. In the U.S. the car has been idolized and elevated and the train deprived of resources for the enrichment of the petrochemical industry. This is not the case in most developed and developing countries. Nations less overtly prosperous than the U.S. have not been as easy to convince that planes and cars are better ways to get around; and the cost and convenience of internal transportation in these places is all the better for it.
As the technology and efficiency of solar power has increased, it has shown itself to be a technology that can not only be a money saver, but also a potentially enormous job creator. Its raw material, sand, is as cheap, as well; sand. With appropriate tariffs to prevent Chinese government subsidized solar panels from unfairly undercutting (with the purpose of putting out of business) domestically produced ones; this country could be the worldwide leader in producing, packaging and selling exactly the kind of technology the world will be needing and buying for the foreseeable future. The same is true for wind power electric generation. Making things that work out of steel, aluminum and composites is what America excelled at for generations. Combining our human knowledge and skill base with our world highest rate of productivity, the U.S. can and will out-compete anyone when conducting trade on a level playing field. The development of geothermal electric production, where natural conditions encourage it, is also an area in which the U.S. can be a world leader with the appropriate use of short term economic stimulus being used to facilitate long term job creation and growth. The American people should play favorites and pick winner, when we are the ones who will be the favorites and the winners instead of the few monopolistic entities who have, for them benefit exclusively, controlled government policy in the past.
When it comes to the real big daddy of electric power generation, the U.S. is most ideally situated to become a major player and the major provider of a big chunk of our domestic electric needs from a entirely clean, highly efficient and infinitely scalable and renewable source; ocean hydro-electric. We are already the world leader in building hydro-electric generation turbines. We can and have built giant ones that can run for well over a hundred years, creating electricity on the most cost efficient basis. We also have thousands of miles of coastline. The amount of energy breaking on the U.S. from tidal energy in only one day is equal to the energy requirement of the entire country for a whole year. This enormous source of energy is free, completely clean and entirely dependable; forever. The majority of the U.S. population and most of our biggest cities are located on the East, West and Gulf coasts, making the distribution of vast amounts of our electricity needs highly efficient; without much of the loss caused by distant transmission of electricity. Ocean tidal electric production has an additional energy benefit. An infinitely scalable volume of cheap electricity and an abundance of water will enable the inexpensive generation of a large volume of hydrogen. Hydrogen is an energy production fuel that can be shipped inland in the U.S. and elsewhere, without any loss due to travel distance. And when hydrogen is burned to produce energy inland, the only by-product is pure fresh water, which is both useful and will be of increasing value virtually anywhere it is produced. Hydrogen fuel cells are scalable so as to be useful for powering cars, houses or factories; anywhere.
The domestic employment expansion and real wealth creation potential of developing, using and exporting all forms of clean, safe energy technology and capabilities by the U.S. is the kind opportunity that very rarely presents itself to a society at just the right time. If we don’t maximize the ability and resources we already have to use this opportunity to grow an economy and society that will nurture our most cherished goals for the foreseeable future; we will regret it deeply for whatever future we may have. The current usage and dependence on the burning of fossil fuels is unsustainable, for even the short near term, without extensive and severe negative consequences. These negative consequences already include, but are not necessarily limited to; massive changes in climate and weather patterns which may severely limit the ability to grow enough food to feed the planets population; larger and more frequent severe weather phenomena which can cause massive habitat destruction, ice cap melting and the consequent rise in ocean levels that will make significant portions of the world’s coastlines uninhabitable; large scale population movements into areas already stressed in their ability to feed or house increased population. There are other potential problems, the nature and size of which we have yet to discover or understand.
The way to avoid the negative consequences of our continued global commitment to fossil fuels is obvious, if not easy. The U.S. must take the worldwide lead in shifting all the public resources we now devote to supporting and promoting the continued use of fossil fuels into the development and construction of clean, safe, sustainable forms of energy. We must substantially increase the short term incentives for such development and implementation. We must endeavor to create a viable mix of publicly and privately financed and operated licensed energy production entities which will serve the public necessity of providing large amounts of inexpensive electric energy, as well as produce reasonable and dependable profits for all the involved investors. Institute the necessary tax, trade and tariff policies required for domestic production and thus employment to benefit from this public and private investment and development in electric energy production.
The powerful interests invested in maintaining the current short sighted and disastrous status quo energy production paradigm can and need be convinced as well as forced into changes that are necessary for the public health, safety and well being of all the citizens of this country. There is a proper and sustainable place for a limited amount of coal, oil and natural gas production; but their use as fuel is a very limited part of the equation. Some diesel fuel, used in its cleanest and most efficient form, will need be part of an expanded rail system, during the transition to clean energy production. Coal, not as a fuel but as an additive, under the most stringent of controls, might be necessary for the increased domestic steel production and other industrial processes America’s new industrialization will require. A limited amount of the already tapped natural gas may be extracted; but only if extensively increased leakage control technology can be developed due to it’s 20 times plus potency as an atmospheric green house gas vs. CO2; only for a very short period of time to allow for transition to truly clean energy. Then petrochemical and natural gas use as a fuel for electric generation or use as heating source and their future development due their highly negative environmental impact needs to be entirely banned. The extensive use of petrochemicals in the making of fertilizers and toxic pest controls, due to their ever growing contamination of the nation’s water supply, will also have to be severely limited or banned.
Petrochemical production will still have a place in the making of necessary lubricants and primarily in the making of plastics for products designed for long term use; which are non-disposable and are ultimately recyclable on a mandatory basis. These products can still have an important and profitable place in the American economy, as long as they are made and used in ways in which their properties make them functionally beneficial and do not have a negative impact on the health, safety or quality of life on the planet.
The future is not something that can be put off; it begins tomorrow. Climate science and common sense both tell us that we are already treading on very thin ice. Literally every day we delay in making the daunting but necessary decisions to save our planet and thus ourselves, make the steps we must take more difficult as well as more pressing. If we don’t act with resolve and commitment now, it may very well be too late to act effectively enough to save all people and places on this planet. The choices we in American make now, because of the world leading strength of our human, physical and economic resources, will determine to a significant degree the future of virtually all the planets inhabitants. Doing the right things now can assure the success of this necessary endeavor. Failing to do so will insure a worldwide fate the consequences of which we will unquestionably regret. Right now we still have choices, let’s make the right ones.