The Most Important Task of Our Time

THE MOST IMPORTANT TASK OF OUR TIME is to electrify the Interstate Highway system.

The Interstate Highway system is a peerless resource.  It has been called the greatest public works project in history.  Let’s capitalize on this unique American treasure by creating an INTERSTATE 2.0 designed to support electric cars.  We want a network electric and hybrid cars can use to hop cross country 40 miles at a time, if need be.  Such a network will let even the early model electrics we have now go anywhere in the country, painstakingly at first to be sure, but with better and better success as time goes by.

Electricity is a unique form of energy.  It alone makes possible a market in which small players can coexist with large.  Electricity is therefore our most democratic form of energy.  No liquid fuel can compete in this regard.  They all tend to make the public dependent on fuel elites, leading to all sorts of mischief.  Look at how powerful the fossil fuel industry has become.  It has enmeshed the Republican party in a cloud of irrational climate denial, a cloud filled with folks who enjoy the fruits of science every day of the week, yet are somehow inspired to dismiss and disparage scientists when it comes to climate.

We can use the electric road to create a rational energy future for ourselves.  While early electric charging stations will be slow, a cascade of improvements will come in time.  Eventually, these improvements won’t just apply to a set of roads, but to the nation as a whole.  By insisting on the creation of the electric road we can launch our country in a new and fundamentally better direction.

The electric road is our best chance to put America back on her economic feet and help restore the middle class.  The Interstate highway may be the largest infrastructure investment EVER made.  It is a jewel at the heart of the nation’s workbench, a colossal archimedean lever mighty enough to give us a place to stand and move the world.  The electric road is an idea who’s time has come, an idea capable of turning heads around the globe in a new direction, toward a new horizon and a brighter tomorrow.

No one in this election cycle has proposed creating Interstate 2.0.  But it’s too important an idea to leave to politicians.  As citizens who care about the future of our country, we need to push this idea ourselves.  Hundreds of billions of dollars fly out of the pockets of ordinary Americans each year paying for gas, much of it bound overseas.  An electric road would re-route much of that money, keeping it in America in our pockets instead, strengthening both the nation’s and our personal economies.

Electrifying the Interstate will eventually drive down gas prices.  I see no reason the "electric gallon" won’t sell for a dollar someday, even less.  But the electric road is more than a path to cheap gas.  It’s a way to address global warming, which is far worse than most now think!  Over the past century fossil fuel combustion has been poisoning plants worldwide.  We’ve put the forests of the world on a pack-a-day habit, and it’s caused them to stop fixing carbon as they normally do.  We need trees to breathe deeply so they can suck CO2 out of the sky.  Instead here we are, gagging the forests with our exhaust, making things worse instead!  Not good!!

Thus any plan to combat climate change MUST include the retirement of the internal combustion engine as a way of doing business.  The longer we wait to stop burning gas as a way to get around, the more hellish life on earth will become.  It’s that simple.  The Electric Road can not only help to heal our economic woes, but steer civilization onto a better climate path.  It’s a win-win.

The jury is more than “in” on the science of global warming.  Every year for a decade now, the predictions have only grown more dire.  If anything, things are worse than we think and the time to act is shorter than we suspect.  America is being attacked by evil weather NOW, not in some dim future.  We are already taking casualties!  If we want our kids to have a decent planet to live on, we need to act NOW.  We can start by recognizing that it’s late in the game, and we need to get on the stick.

America desperately needs to reinvent herself.  Here’s how the Electric Road can make that happen:

In order to speed market acceptance of electric cars the Federal Government should call for the creation of national standards designed to promote a network of electric-capable roads, meaning highways capable of supplying cars with the electric equivalent of gasoline.  These electric-road standards should include. . .

The objective of the Legacy charging standard is to provide support for older and existing electric and hybrid cars.  At this stage we’re talking about stations using household or 220 volt current.  The worst case scenario would be to hop cross-country 40 miles at a time on a limited battery.  Building a network of legacy charging stations will make this modest beginning a reality.

When paying for electricity on the road we should try to automate the billing process, and make buying juice like anything else on the internet.  A wireless adapter for charging stations would also be welcome, especially a system older car owners can participate in by getting a retrofit kit for their cars.  A wireless approach should make it possible to juice up your vehicle simply by parking in a charger-equipped spot.

As the pace of market development and technological change progresses, opportunities will emerge for newer charging systems.  For example, rumor has it that domestic auto makers are working on a system which will charge a car in 15 minutes.  Sounds great!  Over time it’s likely several future charging standards will emerge as technology improves.

The purpose of a national road battery standard is to support a network of electric "filling stations" based on an interchangeable battery.  We know it’s possible to create the electric equivalent of a "filling station" because an Israeli entrepreneur named Shai Agassi  has already done it!  You can see it in action here:

Better Place Electric Car Switching Station

A network of electric "filling stations" like the one shown in this video can only work if everyone uses an interchangeable battery–hence the need for a national standard!  Companies can still push competing technologies for how the electricity is created or stored, but the form factor must be standardized.  That’s the only way you can be sure a fresh battery will fit your car when you pull into an electric station.

But because vehicles vary so much by weight and load, a One-Size-Fits-All approach could be problematic.  So a modular system in which several battery sizes could be used interchangeably might be desirable.  For example a clever system which could juggle these three batteries might go a long way to keeping everyone happy:

1x Capacity  (Motorcycle),   4x Capacity  (Sedan),   8x Capacity  (Small Truck)

A national road battery standard would help create a market in moveable electricity.  America is blessed with abundant mix of renewable energy resources which could supply the electricity needed to power the electric road.  A large area stretching from southern California through much of the southwest holds major promise as a source of baseline solar power.  A huge area in the middle of the country stretching from Texas to Montana is also a major source of wind power.

A standard road battery would invite the formation of a power market in which small players can coexist with large companies.  People with land in the windy Midwest will enjoy the prospect of generating income by using a few windmills to charge standard road batteries.  The electric road will create a robust market for such batteries, one which ordinary Americans as well as large corporations will be able to profit from, if only because every dollar’s worth of energy from domestic renewable energy resources is one more dollar Americans get to keep.

The ability to conduct wireless power transmission on the highway would solve a host of problems.  A few years ago researchers at MIT came up with a promising technique to transmit power wirelessly over short distances.  A company named WiTricity was spun off from this activity and they are now working with Audi to develop a wireless charging station for electric cars.  The system only transfers power to devices which use a matching operational  frequency.  Unless the frequency of the sender and receiver match on both ends, no power is transferred.  So it should be possible to build an electric road which will power vehicles wirelessly without creating a danger to people or animals who might walk across it.  For those interested in exploring how this technology works, WITRICITY’s home page can be found here:


A working Wireless Highway Standard would go a long way to opening up the electric road.  It should be possible to implement a system which will allow automatic account verification and billing.  In the final analysis creating the electric road will also involve updating our old electric grid.  Most analysts recognize our need to move past the legacy patchwork our current grid is based on.  The development of the electric road will only increase our need to update to a smart grid.  We can’t hope to fully develop one system without addressing the need to upgrade the other.  So the need to reinvent the electric grid is really a plus, not a minus.  It’s an opportunity to address a problem we need to confront anyway, and yet another reason to build Interstate 2.0.

This dream of Eisenhower, this crown of roads, this peerless jewel which keeps America moving is a critical asset in America’s economic future.  It’s a golden key we can decide to turn at any time.  Doing so will help us retire the God-awful No-Can-Do stench that rises from Washington these days like the fumes of a fetid swamp.  We must not be denied on this score.  We must insist on progress!

I urge all Americans who long for the health of the country to push for the electric road.  Let’s make petroleum compete openly with electricity on the open road!  Good things will come from it.  While I offer this advice to all Americans, I have little hope Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will welcome this development.  Romney, and Republicans in general, are firmly devoted to Big Oil and a history of global pollution we can no longer afford.  There’s little cause to think they’ll heed this call.

To President Obama I make the following plea:  LEAD OUR COUNTRY, MAN!  Get out in front of this issue and help us invent a future for ourselves!  The electric road is a specific proposal.  It’s a call for an act of concrete progress which awaits a moment of public clarity, a clarity which you, Mr. President, can do much to promote!

Your campaign is also at risk, Mr. President, due to the apathy of the youth who helped elect you in 2008.  Young people need leaders who will push a vision of the future they can understand and see their part in.  Who does that for them in Washington now?  No one!!  What better way for you to regain the attention of the young than to push for the electric road?  "Without vision, the people perish" the Bible tells us.  Most of all, I submit, it’s the young who suffer from a lack of public vision.  Who more than they have need of dreams?  Here is my dream for the future of our country, Mr. President.  Please make use of it!

I’d also like to address the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Throughout time the wealthy have found ways to rob us.  Today it’s happening on a colossal scale.  Without question terrible, indeed systemic, injustice is involved.  But here’s the thing: The wealthy have always been expert at protecting their booty, and we look back at a long history of frustration in which people waited for economic justice which never came.
So much time has been spent fighting to set things right to no avail, it sometimes seems like a subtle trap.  For one thing it tends to make the OWS movement dependent on the legal system for a judgment.  After the Supreme Court’s vote for Citizens United, it’s hard to have much faith in that strategy!  My advice is to focus on progress instead.  We must INSIST ON IT, in fact! 

Our first obligation to posterity is to MAKE A DIFFERENCE, to be effective in creating positive change.  Our chance to do that improves if we focus on the right objective and insist on progress achieving it.  I suggest that OWS adopt the electric road as this worthwhile objective, primarily because accomplishing it will reach into the lives of Americans in a profoundly positive way.  The electric road is the best difference we are in a position to make.  It is a nexus event in waiting, one with the potential to touch everyone’s life.  Accomplishing it will do more to improve the fortunes of ordinary Americans than any other initiative now proposed.  The electric road deserves our focus.  It is the road to a future worth having.

Finally I’d like to address the climate deniers:  Shame on you!  Your behavior is adolescent.  Adults don’t shy away from the problems life throws at them, they meet them head on.  Climate change is a fact of life, one which only grows more implacably evident with each passing year.  If anything scientist have under-reported the problem because it has become obvious to this group of largely apolitical people that the hot wind of public irrationality await anyone who dares point out that history’s biggest pollution party is coming to an end, one way or the other.

Denial is easy.  Kids do it all the time.  But by engaging in such behavior you have made yourself a burden to your fellow citizens and your children.  The hellish world produced by your inaction and denial will cause them to curse your name!  Please, no more blather about how global warming is a convoluted government conspiracy.  Children routinely find ways to blame others for facts they find inconvenient, just as you are doing now.

The time to grow up is running out for us all.  Either we must find a workable future we can embrace, or the sickening Earth will decide our future for us.  The Electric Road can be a key part of our workable future.  But the challenge is vast, the stakes unimaginably high.  We need all hands on deck.  Especially yours, Mr. President!

An End To Fuelishness

There is a great deal of debate today about how we should power our cars. Most recognize by now that the petro-diet we’ve been on is unsustainable in the long run. It’s hazardous to the environment, and given America’s dependence on foreign oil, it’s also impoverishing our country. But while gasoline may have lost it’s luster in the eyes of social planners, there are many champions of liquid fuel champing at the bit to take its place. I am here to argue that a major key to our energy future lies in spurning them all, and moving straight to electricity. It’s time to put an end to fuelishness!

We should look to abandon liquid fuels in general. For one thing, they’re socially regressive. They make us dependent on the powerful minority that delivers the fuel. We will all pay extra at the pump for empowering a new generation of fuel masters. Liquid fuels also require distribution systems which are enormously expensive to build and maintain. In the case of hydrogen, the existing system of refineries and gas stations is largely useless. A new system would have to be built at huge expense. Who would ultimately be asked to foot that bill? Ordinary customers, that’s who! Biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel pose fewer infrastructure problems. But all forms of liquid fuel require wasting huge amounts of energy simply to move the stuff around where people can use it. Then there’s the safety question. Is it really a good idea to mix fleets of gas trucks with normal passenger traffic? That’s an issue ethanol can only make worse, as it ignites more easily than gasoline.

Many who recognize the problems of hydrogen will argue for various biofuels. But biofuels have their own problems. Using corn to produce ethanol may be great for corn farmers, but it’s not going to solve our energy dilemma. Growing corn is itself a fossil fuel intensive process. So the net energy payback from ethanol isn’t good. According to Cornell University scientist David Pimentel, it takes 1.3 gallons of oil to produce one gallon of Ethanol! Ethanol also diverts land from food production and is already driving up food prices. Switch grass is a better alternative than corn, but with the potential exception of algae, all methods of making biofuel will require huge tracts of land to supply a significant portion of current energy demand.

Changes in land use inspired by biofuel initiatives are increasingly raising alarm with climate change activists. Brazilians have cut down huge sections of the Amazon rain forest to cultivate sugar cane for ethanol. Similarly, large areas of Asian peat lands are being converted to Palm oil plantations to make biofuels. Scientist are warning that these activities may release many times more carbon into the atmosphere than will be saved by the modest greenhouse gas improvement ethanol provides. Fixing our energy problem at the price of losing the war on global warming isn’t a road we can afford to take. Replacing gasoline with biofuels is not the answer to our problems.

As if these reasons weren’t enough, engines powered by liquid fuels are incapable of running efficiently. Heat Engines, which is what combustion engines are, are doomed by basic thermodynamic laws to be inefficient at normal temperatures. The only environment in which heat engines can be truly efficient is far too cold for humans to survive. Gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel, natural gas–it doesn’t matter. They are all doomed to be wasteful. In practice, combustion engine vehicles succeed in using less that a third of their fuel energy to produce motion. The rest goes out the radiator, tailpipe, or is bled off as waste heat. This is a matter of basic scientific law, and beyond debate. As a result no strategy aimed at achieving real energy efficiency can survive the widespread use of combustion engines. The same is true of any strategy which hopes to defeat global warming. If we are truly serious about fixing these problems, we need to end our reliance on the combustion engine. It’s that simple.

Electricity is the solution to our energy problem. The development of batteries capable of driving a generation of electric cars Americans can be happy with is well underway. Nanotechnology is in the process of radically extending the range of electric cars with batteries that can recharge in a few minutes. Unlike biofuels, electric cars don’t produce 80% of gasoline’s emissions: they have ZERO emissions! While heat engines are stuck well under 50% efficiency, a well maintained electric car can be 90% efficient. As Intel’s founder Andy Grove points out, electricity will also provide a unique flexibility in handling our energy problems. It can be produced from many sources, including solar and wind. It can be transmitted with virtually instant speed across the landscape. Unlike hydrogen or natural gas, we won’t have to completely rebuild our delivery system to accommodate electric cars. The national electric grid as it exists today is already capable of moving us in the right direction. Yes, the grid will need to be augmented as electric demand grows. But there’s no reason this can’t happen in an orderly fashion in the years to come. Current initiatives by the fledgling Obama administration are already beginning to lay the groundwork for the smart grid of the future.

To replace liquid fuels, the electric game plan will rely on a bridge technology called the hybrid car, a type of vehicle which combines a traditional gas engine with a rechargeable electric storage system. Hybrids have existed for some years, and are currently manufactured by several companies. Hybrids use several techniques to extend gas mileage, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process. The plug-in hybrid, which owners can recharge at home, represents the next step, leading eventually to the all electric car. Over the coming years, this progression will provide a clear path traditional car manufacturers can take to help us evolve an electric future.

During this period there will be many temptations to extend our long reliance on liquid fuels. But it is critical that we not allow ourselves to be distracted from the goal of an electric future. In order to fend off catastrophic climate change, there can be no place for widespread use of liquid fuels. Either we stop dumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the sky, or we will pass on a sickened planet to our children. The electric car is the one way for us all to keep driving and avoid that outcome. The alternative is catastrophe.

Future Transit

We all know the reasons for action: Cities clogged by chronic traffic congestion; airborne pollutants which harm the health of millions; greenhouse gas exhaust which promotes ominous climate change. The need to develop new forms of mass transit to help transform our car-crazy world is clear. What’s not so clear is what form such action should take. Europe and Japan have made significant strides developing high speed rail systems. But to date not much has been done in the United States to bring mass transit into the 21st century. With the advent of the Obama administration, however, there is fresh cause to hope that long overdue action is coming. Clearly many have been nursing forward looking visions of what we might do, as this Comparison Matrix of Ready and Emerging Innovative Transportation Technologies developed at the University of Washington shows.

America’s transportation future should be based on phasing out internal combustion engines in favor of all electric cars, a subject I’ll deal with in greater length elsewhere. Going electric will make cars lighter in general, making passengers more vulnerable to collisions with heavy vehicles. For the sake of passenger safety, as well as overall energy efficiency, we should move most long haul trucking off our highways and back to trains. Accomplishing this goal should be the focus in updating our existing railroad system, not moving people around at high speeds. We need to update existing trains as a freight distribution system which will relieve highways of much of heavy freight they now carry. Doing so will not only make travel safer for passenger traffic, it will save energy and lower stress on our roadways.

Adopting the European approach to high speed trains would be a mistake for the United States. The expense required to install ground based high speed train service for a country as large as the US will be astronomical. People here also need to go faster than Europeans simply because the US is a much bigger place. But as the speed of ground based traffic rises, the potential for mayhem, mischief, and disaster rises with it. Moving people around on a national basis at speeds appropriate to the size of the US should cause us to move high speed transit off the ground, if only to reduce potential disasters.

ATI’s (Airtrain Inc.) Advance Guideway System is an approach with significant advantages over most high speed rail schemes. ATI’s current design uses a vehicle which carries 114 people hung from an overhead guide rail. Two modes of propulsions are used. At lower speeds drive wheels grasp the guide rail to push the vehicle along quietly. At higher speeds ducted thrust fans take over. Vehicles are reversible, so there is no need for two tracks. They can also be linked in groups to form multi car trains. Because the guide way is suspended from mounts, vehicles don’t interfere with local ground traffic and can use existing rights of ways. The system is also capable of climbing 15% grades, eliminating the need to tunnel through mountains. Both propulsion methods use electricity supplied by the guide rail. So no fossil fuel or combustion is involved.

The key to ATI’s system is dual propulsion. This is a system which acts as a subway or light commuter rail in town, and a like a propeller airplane when going cross country. Like airplanes, ATI’s vehicles pitch and roll when going around curves. The initial system is rated to operate at 150 miles per hour. But the company is already working on a 250 mph system, and is committed to providing 300. Since propeller airplanes can operate efficiently up to 350 mph, further headroom may be possible in the years ahead. These are speeds we are unlikely to see from ground based trains, and at which it would be inadvisable to operate ground traffic, even if it were possible.

A national network based on ATI’s system would be cheaper and faster to build than high speed ground trains. With enough time and development a grid built on this technology could displace national jet flights for all but the longest routes and most demanding travelers. Eventually express trains of this type could go coast to coast in ten hours. You would be able to take a sleeper car in New York, and wake up in Los Angeles. Advanced Guideway routes would also serve as superior form of urban commuter rail, allowing workers who live much greater distances from downtown retain the ability to commute into the city each day.

Of course one reason Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit services is the need to get around a distant town once they arrive. If someone feels they’ll need a car once they arrive in a city, they might as well just drive there to start with! This brings us to the other end of the national grid scale: the need locals and visitors alike have to simply get around town. Many schemes are being floated to solve this problem, but most will required extensive and expensive changes in how cities work. Rather than futuristic notions of fleets of small ownerless vehicles, or cars that can ride on rail lines, we might be better served by resurrecting an old Jazz Age phenomena called the Jitney, or Share Taxi.

IGT Taxibus is a British firm which presents a compelling scheme for what might be called Jitney service for the 21st century. The IGT system is composed of four elements: a fleet of minibuses to move people around, cell phone networks to order rides and coordinate payments, GPS to guide travel routes, and computer networking to coordinate fleets with maximum efficiency. Taxibuses provide door to door service, and IGT claims an average wait-time of only three minutes between ordering a ride, and being picked up. Fares would be automatically handled on cell phones, eliminating the token taking and exact change problems typical of city buses. IGT claims that Taxibus travel times will be much closer to a car or taxi than a city bus, especially as a Taxibus delivers riders directly to their destinations without the need to park a car on arrival.

IGT’s analysis suggests that the biggest benefit will be the elimination of six cars from city streets for every working Taxibus. For the scheme to work properly large fleets of Taxibuses are necessary to provide the quick response times IGT projects. But if IGT’s analysis is even close to being right, the benefit of deploying a large fleet of Taxibuses in big cities would be immense. A huge number of cars would be taken off the roads, resulting not only in big energy savings, but significant reductions in urban congestion and exhaust emissions. Furthermore, any city served by a large Taxibus fleet would give travelers added reason to ride high speed transit to town, rather than driving a car there. If you know cheap Taxibuses are available to ferry you door to door around town on short notice, there will be little reason to drive your car into the city to start with.

The combined strategies embodied by ATI’s Advanced Guideway System and IGT’s Taxibus can form a rich synergy capable of putting a major dent in America’s overwhelming traffic load. Who will want to drive a car 1000 miles when it’s possible to hop an Air train that moves at 300 miles per hour? Why would you need to drive your car to a distant city swarming with Taxibuses ready to provide quick door-to-door service? Yes, it will doubtless cost a great deal to create an Advanced Guideway network that covers the entire country, but not nearly as much, and to much better effect, than a ground based high speed rail system.

More importantly, it will cost us even more in the long run to do nothing. America needs to look up and embrace its future. It can do so by bringing the equivalent of flight down to the people. On the other hand, we need a way to unsnarl our complicated cities which won’t require the immense cost of retrofitting them with futuristic urban schemes. The indignity and inefficiency of city buses has soured most Americans on the prospect of mass transit. Taxibus fleets deployed in large numbers could remedy this, and in the process take huge numbers of cars off the roads where it matters most: from the heart of downtown.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 01.26.09)

Energy Illusions

As the sun sets on the cheap oil era, the need to focus on alternatives to fossil fuels has become increasingly apparent. During this period the public has been offered some persistent misconceptions about the nature of the problem, and what we should do to solve it. In general we tend to oversimplify the nature of the challenge we’re facing, identifying it merely as the need to come up with new sources of fuel.

What’s really going is much more profound than running out of gas–it’s a crisis of sustainability, a test of our overall way of life. The consequences of the “limitless growth” model that’s driven industrial economies for the last century is swiftly catching up with us. We’re overproducing and overcomsuming ourselves into oblivion. Clinging to the old model can only result in a series of destructive resource wars and hasten the pace of catastrophic climate change. Throwaway culture is no longer a luxury we can afford. If we fail to break our old economic habits it will be “our world” that will be thrown out! That process is already underway, and gaining momentum.

Here is a quick checklist of popular misconceptions about the energy crisis:

The energy crisis is a separate problem unto itself. – It isn’t! The energy crisis is bound up with larger questions about the sustainability of our prevailing growth model of economic activity. We need to recognize that our headlong consumption of fossil fuel is overheating the planet. If we want society to endure for the long term we need to question the cancerous logic of limitless growth, and learn to live within our means. This is especially true for the most prolific overconsumers on the planet: Americans!

The earth is running out of oil, and fossil fuel in general. – It’s not! Huge reservoirs of fossil fuels exist, enough to meet current levels of demand for many decades to come. There are enormous reserves in the form of coal, tar sands, and methane hydrate deposits. What is coming to an end is the supply of cheap fossil fuel. We can get at the remaining reserves of fossil fuel, but doing so will be increasingly expensive and have unpleasant consequences.

Lack of fuel is the most pressing limit posed by this energy crisis. – Wrong! There is plenty of material to produce fuel from, if we’re willing to pay the price. The most pressing limit we face concerning energy use is the amount of carbon we can dump into the atmosphere! Current economic activity is already helping to melt Greenland’s ice pack. The process has been underway for years and is accelerating. As Greenland’s ice goes, it will raise global sea levels by twenty feet. The homes of over half the human race will be inundated in the process. You do the math!

The problem can be fixed by finding more fuel to meet demand. – It can’t! Part of the problem is we’re consuming too much energy to maintain climatic stability. In the case of Americans the per capita rate of consumption is far too high. It makes no sense to try and sustain our way of life without asking ourselves if that way of life is sustainable to start with. The earth isn’t going to adapt itself to our habits. Instead we need to adapt our habits to our home in space. We must ask ourselves hard questions about the kinds of activity we can reasonably expect to sustain over the long haul here on planet Earth.

The Hydrogen Economy will solve our problems.It won’t! Elemental hydrogen isn’t a source of energy. Unlike oil it doesn’t occur naturally but has be “manufactured” instead. In effect hydrogen is a form of energy storage, not a fuel source. It can’t help us replace dwindling oil supplies.

Ethanol can be used to replace gasoline.Not going to happen! Like hydrogen, ethanol isn’t a fuel source, but a form of energy storage. Besides, don’t we need the corn ethanol is made from to feed people? Can we morally justify starving people to produce fuel? Finally, the corporate agriculture which produces the corn ethanol is derived from is itself hugely dependent on fossil fuels.

Renewable energy can’t solve the energy crisis. – This is one of two lies large corporations promote about renewable energy. The truth is that renewable energy can be most effectively pursued as a set of decentralized grassroots solutions by ordinary citizens. But that’s a path which will break down the centralized control big energy and utility companies have over their customers. So while they pay lip service to renewable energy sources they package the concept as something complicated that needs further study, something that’s beyond the reach of regular people. This leads us to lie number two. . .

Renewable energy solutions are large and complex. – Big corporations visualize energy solutions as large highly centralized projects because it mirrors their desire to maintain centralized economic control. So corporations tends to think of a solar solution as something that looks like this, or a wind solution that look like this. These kinds of projects are clearly too expensive for ordinary people to participate in. To the extent that we accept such ideas we’ll be turned off to the notion of solving the energy crisis for ourselves, one household at a time. Of course this is exactly what big companies want.

What we need is the right fuel to replace gasoline. – This is another corporate friendly falsehood. The reason solutions like hydrogen and ethanol get a lot of attention in the press is that they maintain the current paradigm: energy needed to drive our cars can only be produced by large corporations using highly centralized production and distribution systems to deliver fuel. The problem is that the existing corporate system has been built on a “found object”–vast reservoirs of cheap oil pumped out of the ground at low cost. But unlike oil neither hydrogen nor ethanol is an energy source. You have to consume other energy sources to produce them. So it’s very unlikely hydrogen or ethanol will ever drive the creation of another centralized system like the one cheap oil gave rise to. The real solution is to bypass fuel altogether, and go straight to electricity. Electricity is an ideal form of energy for transportation. This fact has been repeatedly demonstrated, most recently by a car produced by Tesla Motors. What they’ve produced isn’t your Dad’s electric car–it does zero to sixty in four seconds!

In a future post I will address how we can really solve the energy crisis, and wean America off foreign oil in one generation.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 09.11.06)

Fight Terrorism – Decentralize!

Anything top-heavy is in chronic need of propping up, and constantly in danger of falling down. That’s the position the United States is in today in the war on terrorism. My aim here isn’t to look at the moral aspect of this struggle, but to focus on its tactical dimension. On one hand we have a wealthy nation whose large appetite for resources makes it’s economic health dependent on what’s happening in numerous countries overseas. So we’re vulnerable to events which occur far outside our borders and need a large, complex, and expensive army capable of projecting power in distant lands to protect our interests. The considerable expense of such an enterprise further contributes to our vulnerability. It’s fair to ask how long can we keep this up, especially given the fact that the federal government is once again running huge deficits.

But there’s another dimension to our vulnerability which has drawn relatively little attention until now. Our society depends on a highly centralized infrastructure, and is thus susceptible to disruption. Consider our electrical grid. Many of you may recall the North American blackout of 2003 in which Ontario Canada and seven states from Michigan to Massachusetts suddenly found themselves without juice. This event featured a cascade failure which eventually involved over 250 power plants, 22 of them nuclear. Before it was over fifty million people were affected.

The official explanation for the cause of this mammoth power outage was Overgrown Trees! That’s right, it didn’t take a criminal terrorist mastermind to plunge millions of American into darkness, just the failure of an Ohio energy company to trim trees back to keep them from interfering with local high voltage lines, a failure which brought down a Cleveland area power plant during a period of peak demand, eventually causing a cascade failure which affected a huge section of two countries.

This event could not have failed to make an impression on those who would like to hurt and disrupt the United States. In fact, at the time more than a few people thought the blackout was the work of terrorists, not some trees that had gotten out of hand! The point is that when you wire everything together tightly, you create a situation that’s predisposed to unpredictable havoc. For example, thirty million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into New York City’s East River as a result of this blackout. That’s a pretty strange connection to make to trees brushing against high voltage lines in Ohio!

A system capable of broadcasting unintended consequences in this fashion is a terrorist’s dream. Thus far it doesn’t seem to have mattered much, perhaps because terrorists have been more concerned with hurting people directly, and haven’t really targeted our infrastructure. But if that changes there may be more than a few unwelcome surprises in store for us. It’s not hard to imagine how human ingenuity might expand on the exploits of overgrown shrubbery!

We depend so much on technology to keep things running that the potential for catastrophe created by highly centralized systems is considerable. If we really care to make our country more secure, and to protect ourselves from the impulses of those who would harm us, this is a question we are obliged to address. By decentralizing our infrastructure we remove targets of opportunity others can use against us. In the process we make ourselves more resilient and resistant to attack.

The electric grid is an excellent place to start decentralizing our infrastructure. It’s carrying too much "freight" as it is. The technology already exists to let homeowners develop their own electricity on-site using renewable energy like solar and wind power. Every household capable of supplying some or all of its own electrical demand removes a little of the burden from a fragile and overtaxed central grid. Those who generate their own electricity can sell it back to the power company, further helping to relieve stress on the system. What’s needed to get things moving is a little leadership in Washington.

Our electric grid is only the most conspicuous case of an overly centralized system that increases our vulnerability as a nation. The principle of decentralizing infrastructure to remove terrorist targets of opportunity deserves serious attention in our nation’s capital. All the heated political rhetoric in the world about "evil people" who "hate our freedom" won’t protect us nearly as well as taking this sort of common sense initiative seriously. George Bush likes to say that "we are fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here." My response is: Let’s prepare ourselves here so they can’t hurt us here!

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 09/05/06)

The Deadliest Enemy Has Nothing To Lose

Since 911 American politics has obsessed about the war on terror. To hear most politicians tell it, our top priority in securing the realm is to defeat extremists so bent on hurting us that they’re willing to die in the process. If someone attacks you unexpectedly you would naturally react by asking "Why? What did I do to deserve this?" Why then, is public discourse about terrorism so often hostile to such questions when applied to the United States, reflexively choosing to equate examining the consequences of our national behavior with giving aid and comfort to the enemy?

If we are indeed at war this situation poses a cruel irony. Self examination and willingness to fix one’s mistakes are traits which help make an enemy formidable, allowing him to see how his behavior impacts the tide of war, and what he can do about it. Understanding, not emotion, is key to winning wars. A nation that can’t look itself in the mirror is hobbled on the eve of battle. Those who discourage Americans from self examination aren’t patriots, but fools, or worse.

"No peace without justice" is an oft repeated phrase, one which reflects a truth about human nature most of us grasp readily, if only because we recall our own anger when we’ve been unfairly used. But few of us as Americans have ever been so savagely treated that we’re willing to die simply to hurt someone who’s done us wrong. That requires a special desperation, one born from a sense of having nothing to lose. The notion that we have enemies willing to commit suicide just to hurt us should give us pause.á How does one negotiate with someone who has nothing to lose? What can you deprive them of which might turn them aside? How can you change their mind?

There are, in fact, only two real answers to such questions. One is to dominate your enemies by force, preventing them from acting on their impulses. That’s the choice of the Bush administration. The problem with this approach is that if you don’t kill those who hate you outright, you only delay their attacks on you because suppressing their ability to act only makes them hate you more. Sooner or later you’ll get tired of holding them down, your attention will wander, or the money runs out.

Then WHACK! – the blood that flows becomes your own! And if revenge is indeed a dish that’s best served cold, Americans have deep cause for concern. We can’t entirely stop the spread of technologies which make ever more potent weapons of mass destruction possible. How will we feel if Washington or New York is suddenly replaced by a smoking hole in the ground? Would that be an acceptable price for our war on terror? I suspect most of us would feel impossibly, profoundly numb because unlike suicide bombers, Americans do have something to lose – quite a lot in fact!

So if we’re not interested in making a perpetual career of holding other people’s heads down, we need a Plan B, one suggested by all major religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism: Love Your Enemies! This isn’t an abstract utopian strategy, but simple common sense based on human nature. In the long run it is the only real way solve to the problem. Giving those with nothing to lose a stake in this life will do more over time than empire can to turn suicide bombers aside, for as history teaches, all empires eventually fade. By helping those who hate us we can turn our enemies into friends. Then not only will we be free from having to suppress their actions out of fear, but they’ll actually start watching our backs! That’s what friends do.

If we really want security we need to call the warmongering bluff of the Bush administration. Its approach isn’t to solve the problem of terrorism, but to perpetuate it in order to make us dependent on them to control an ever present threat. Patriotic Americans should reject the prospect of endless war these people offer us. Rather than handing down a fearful world to our children we should insist on solving the problem of Terrorism and putting it behind us.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 08.26.06)

Fixing The World by Fixing Ourselves

Fixing The World by Fixing Ourselves

The looming reality of peak oil is the single biggest driving force in geopolitics today. More than any other commodity cheap oil has fueled the development of the global economy. The world will never entirely run out of oil. But now that cheap oil is passing from the scene the economies of all nations will be subject to unprecedented stresses. This situation is greatly exacerbated by the recent growth of demand in China and India. The economic aspirations of nations depends on a steady supply of oil. Thus the scene has been set for a global struggle to secure a dwindling resource. I believe this, not “spreading democracy” or the “war on terror” is the real reason the United States finds itself in Iraq today. We are jockeying for position to keep our “fix” alive.

Given its pivotal economic role, oil greatly exacerbates achieving peace in the middle east. The abundance of oil in Arab countries complicates an already difficult situation, producing global sensitivities which only makes local passions harder to resolve. The outlandish energy consumption of the American economy has made us hyper-vulnerable to events unfolding in that region of the world by tying the health of our economy to decisions governing resources in oil producing states. We’ve made ourselves easy to “terrorize” by making ourselves dependent on others. This dynamic will only get worse because oil will only become harder to produce while demand continues to rise.

But a world at war over a diminishing supply of oil is not inevitable. It’s something we can still chose to turn aside from. More than any other country the United States “invented” the 20th century. We can do so again, and turn away from what increasingly looks like an impending disaster. To accomplish this we must commit ourselves to decentralizing energy production using renewable energy sources. The powers that be are fond of telling us that no technology currently exists which is capable of replacing oil. I urge you to reject this patently unamerican “can’t do” attitude because it simply isn’t true.

What is true is that there’s no good replacement for oil which will maintain the over privileged status of oil companies. But America wasn’t created to serve the needs of oil companies. We need to insist that our government vigorously pursues energy solutions which will benefit its people as a whole, whether or not the privileged status of oil companies is maintained in the process.

The crux of the issue before us is not technical, but political. I have been tracking new energy technologies for twenty five years and I know solutions exist to allow the United States to completely wean itself from foreign oil within a generation, solutions which I will address in future postings. For the moment I want to emphasize that what’s stopping us is a matter of political will, of taking the first step, of doing what’s necessary to make our government work in a rational fashion to solve the needs of all its people. That’s the initiative we need to have faith in! It’s the step we must take to turn away from the prospect of endless war the Bush administration is so fond of telling us is our fate.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 08.24.06)