Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Real Inconvenient Truth

I'm sure a lot of people have heard of Nissan's new electric car called the Leaf. It's nice to see electric vehicles being actively developed after all these years of tinkering. With an electric range of around 40 miles and the inclusion of a gasoline generator to provide electric power if you stretch your travels beyond that initial range, it seems like an excellent compromise. An electric car emits no carbon monoxide or other pollutants into the atmosphere and can be charged overnight during non-peak power usage. Of course there is a problem. Seems there always is, but that just reminds us that there are no perfect solutions. The sticking point is the power itself. The Leaf is a great step towards reducing pollution, but it's only a step. Focusing on the end product, electric cars, blinds us to the root issue of where the electricity comes from. Technically the Leaf is a "zero emission" vehicle. But only if you ignore the emissions of the power plants that produced the electricity itself.

So now we face the crux of the issue. Yes we can dust off the old idea of an electric vehicle, but we're left with . . . well, an ELECTRIC vehicle. Electricity is not a magic substance distilled from dreams, it's a limited commodity. We don't have it anywhere near as bad as some of the less industrialized nations who have to live with regular daily periods without power or unexpected brownouts. However even in the US, stretches of very hot weather in urban centers can still cause brownouts and public calls for limiting use during peak times. Now a small number of electric cars, charging overnight may not be a significant issue but assuming, not unreasonably, that the technology becomes cheaper and more prevalent we are going to see demand for electricity rise even as the demand for gas begins to fall. Remember, there are no free rides when it comes to powering our civilization and all that additional electrical demand has to come from somewhere. I would suggest that it might be wise to work on the supply problem before we dive too deeply into creating additional demand.

So that brings us to how we generate the power we have now. Since we've yet to discover any of the near mythic power technologies such as cold fusion, we are left with our current, no pun intended, power generation technology. That situation is not pretty and certainly not clean. Our electricity comes from power plants and the majority of those generate power by burning coal.  Coal, of course, is the worst type of fuel for pollution. But there are the new 'clean coal' plants, right? Sure it's clean, as long as you compare it to other coal plants. Compared to anything else they're still horrible. So while I'm all for electric vehicles, at some point we're going to have to address the actual problem...the fact that most of our energy is still based on ancient technology. Coal, natural gas and oil are, at their most basic, little removed from the idea of burning logs to heat the cave. All we've done since is to refine the process over the centuries. We continue to be shackled to finite, dirty and dangerous sources of power and creating an electric car only pushes the pollution off to another location. It doesn't actually reduce it.

This brings us to pollution that is caused almost exclusively by burning fossil fuels. Now I don't know if it causes Global Warming, and to be honest I don't really care. What I do care about is stopping the pollution! We are way too worked up about this debate on 'Climate Change' and its cause. Seems that most scientists agree that there has been a warming trend in the Earth's climate with correspondingly more extreme weather. Where the fist fights erupt is over the, in my opinion meaningless, assignation of blame for it. Is it a natural cycle or is it human induced or at least human enhanced? I tell you, it does not matter! This is a pointless argument. Why? Because there is no doubt whatsoever that we are polluting the planet. We dump things into our waterways, oceans and the air that we would never touch, drink or breath because it would kill us. Nobody with a functioning brain can possibly think this stuff is doing anything good for the environment or our collective health. The 'environment' isn't just a whimsical term used by GreenPeace. The Environment is what we breathe, what we drink and what we eat. Every belch of soot from a coal plant ends up in someone's lungs. Every bucket of fertilizer ends up somewhere in the marine food chain and eventually some trace will find its way into that tasty plate of Fish and Chips you picked up at Applebees. Every misguided attempt to coax out another wisp of natural gas from the bedrock leaches a little bit of chemical residue into the water supply. Every year, just south of the mouth of the Mississippi river, a huge 'dead zone' appears in the Gulf of Mexico. It's an area of very low oxygen where little if any marine animals can live. This isn't a natural thing. It's there because of heavy fertilizer runoff from the midwest farm belt. Color me reactionary, but this is a problem!

I know it sounds all touchy-feely, but Earth's ecosystem is one huge terrarium. What happens in one corner WILL affect everything else.  Ocean currents circle the globe just as the jet stream rushes like a river at 30,000 feet across the continents. Oil spills and chemical releases don't respect national borders and are immune to military force and border fencing. We see this every time a volcano erupts and ash is tracked thousands and thousands of miles around the globe. But we pretend that it's just an inconvenient freak of nature rather than a real world example of how our planet works. Why? Because it's easier to just ignore it since it doesn't have a visible impact on our daily lives. Because it's fiscally and therefore politically convenient to do so. Am I the only one who wonders how many health issues, from cancer to autism may be linked to the toxins we breathe, eat and drink every day? Disagree? Then I invite you to take a nice deep drink of Mississippi river water. Go camp out for a week next to your nearest coal plant,  and don't forget to take the kids!  Emphysema is best when shared.

Look, the baseline issue here is our energy policy. Or more specifically our intense fear of actually coming up with one. The reason is because we are so heavily invested, financial and otherwise, in fossil fuels and the logistics of collecting and transporting them that any threat to move away from the tried and true sends up screams of outrage. Screams from those who benefit most from the status quo. Let me repeat that, those most opposed to moving away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy are those companies who profit from the status quo. You won't find any coal barons or oil moguls pushing for clean, renewable energy and you never will. Unless, of course, they figure out how to make lots of money from it. That's an important point to keep in mind. It's in the best interests of oil, gas and coal companies to discourage anything that threatens their monopoly on energy production. Or anything that threatens to increase their costs and subsequently lowers their profits. Energy companies are already the wealthiest in the history of humanity, but greed is insatiable. These same companies are so deeply embedded in State and Federal Government that it's painfully difficult to get any motion on moving our energy supply out of the 19th century. But we need to make the change and soon. Every day we add more pollution to the air and water. Every day the global reserves of fossil fuels are further depleted. So as we slowly poison ourselves we are also ignoring the absolute fact that these fuel sources WILL run out. Why was the Deepwater Horizon rig drilling in over 5,000 feet of water? It sure wasn't because of convenience or cost.  It's because we are running out of oil reserves in more accessible locations! Just like we are having to mine deeper and deeper for significant reserves of coal. And why we are dropping natural gas wells in people's back yards and contaminating their drinking water. No, the world won't be running out of any of these fuels tomorrow, but it's coming. Just think about the term 'fossil' fuels. This stuff was laid down and cooked underground for millions of years to become the energy sources of today. When it's gone, it's gone forever, at least in a time period that has any meaning to humans. Politicians of all stripes drone on and on about the need to obtain energy independence yet nobody has the guts to actually do anything. Humans are apparently too stupid and short sighted to prepare for even obvious disasters lurking in the future because it will inconvenience us today. We'd rather react once the bottom falls out rather than prepare ahead of time. That's the real Inconvenient Truth.


  1. You are right. There is a cost for living the way we do and our vision really has to extend beyond our reach. In a world of what's in it for me I wonder what it will take for us to truly understand this. Even I, who understands the problem, or at least has a clue, battles with small choices that seem meaningless. Do I buy a bottled water? Do I go for a drive just because I want to? Or take a road trip just for fun? A million different things that seem like being far too concerned but all contribute to the problem. At a time when people are scared or off balance because of the economy, I am not sure that we are courageous enough to try something new, even if it may save us. I hope so but I don't know.

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