The view from down here

Energy Dependence

July 21, 2008

We talk a lot these days about our oil addiction and whether we should increase offshore drilling or open up the spigot in Alaska.

This is missing the point. Just as the abortion debate should not be about pro-choice or pro-life, but should really be about preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place, the energy debate is not about oil.

There is little that any one person can do to challenge the premise of his civilization. I didn't create the industrial revolution, the car, or my need for it. I play my part in this world much as a citizen of Rome played his part.

We can all think differently about our consumption. That is good, but no amount of bike riding on my part will put a dent in the millions of other cars chewing through petroleum.

To change the direction of a nation or of the world, you need the right lever and the right fulcrum. If you happen to be a member of a research team at a car company, you are sitting much closer to a potential fulcrum than I ever will. Car designers can imagine new types of hybrid cars and can play a roll in making them available. A smart car dealership is a fulcrum. If you run a smart car dealership you enable others to do their part by buying them.

Again, these are all good, but it's the thousands of little fulcrums that we need to work on. In fact, if we don't take care of these little pieces, there's going to be a major drag on the big fulcrums.

Let me demonstrate this with a negative example, by pointing out all the things that we might have, but don't.

Why doesn't every house have a small windmill next to that ubiquitous satellite dish? Why can't I buy a panel of photovoltaic cells and plug it into my breaker box? Why doesn't every house come equipped with plug-in energy packages? Every house has a water heater, and cold water from the ground goes into it where it gets heated by electricity or gas. But if those tubes took a run across the roof before going into the tank, I might get by with a lot fewer watts to heat it the rest of the way.

Every day I see television commercials for companies that want to redo my carpet, gutters, or windows. Why don't I see commercials for companies that want to install solar, wind, and other energy alternatives in my home? I would gladly buy them. Where are they?

There are thousands of building codes in place regarding the size, capacity, and hookup of electrical home service. It is possible, but very rare and unusual, to place in your home self-generating power and a bank of batteries.

Building codes need to change to adopt this new direction. Until that happens, innovation can't happen because much of it would be illegal.

The car industry is full of regulations of what a car must be and must do. Cars must have a particular strength and size of bumper. Cars must withstand various types of crash tests. From lights, to mirrors, to hundreds of form and function details, American automobiles must all satisfy a particular set of mandates, which pretty much means that the only legal cars are very much like those already on the road.

Again, no amount of innovation in body form, size, structure is even allowed. Safety regulation must advance to include new forms and new ideas. Until then, the big-iron monopoly of auto manufacturing will be unchanged, and none of us will be able to do a thing about it.

There are many jobs that depend on things staying as they are. Many jobs of auto mechanics, especially oil changes, would go away. Gas stations and the entire infrastructure are locked in place. Road construction equipment makes roads to support semi-trucks that deliver parts to make machines that build parts that go into road construction machines and everything else.

Everything is deeply related into a particular way that the world works, and these bricks have become mortared in place by legislation ranging from materials, practices, codes, pay, and even how contract bids are considered.

Imagine how different the world might be if we could escape from this web of inertia.

First, every car would be electric. We know how to do this. Diesel locomotives have been running turbines to power electric wheels for over fifty years. With electric cars you can power them in a number of ways, from traditional gas-powered motors, to plug-in, to solar cells on the roof, regenerative braking, hydrogen fuel cells, and it would be much easier to take out a gas motor and replace it with a diesel engine modified to run on vegetable oil. Once you switch to an electric drive train, you have dozens of plug-in and after-market options that would welcome innovation.

Why not make cars out of hollow carbon tubes or plastic? Why not have city cars that are more like golf carts? Why not a lot of things. It's easy to imagine, and we have no technological barriers. What is holding us back are hundreds of little laws, building codes, car regulations, all off which have to be updated to continue advocating safety, but allowing very different designs.

There are submarines running around the globe with tiny nuclear reactors in them. It's not like we don't know how to build them. Could an economy of scale, and a level of reliability be reached if we put a small submarine sized-reactor in the basement of one house in every neighborhood? We will never know until someone is allowed to try. Imagine what that would do to provide fuel for hungry electric cars.

There's only so much we can do as consumers, and only so far that manufacturers are allowed to innovate without disrupting the apple cart, changing laws, and putting people out of work.

In 2001 several electric cars produced by General Motors were recalled and destroyed, and there has not been any significant replacement. Imagine if in 2008 we were seven years ahead of those models. But now we are back to ground zero. With and oil-man in the White House, it's no wonder.

We don't need to drill in Alaska. We simply need to be left alone to do what we know how to do, to innovate and lead the world in a new direction.

Copyright 2008 Daniel LaFavers