‘IT’S ALL ABOUT ELECTRICITY, STUPID!’
ELECTRICITY POLICY PAPER
This paper presents an ELECTRICITY POLICY as a new way of thinking about, presenting, and POLITICALLY dealing with the long standing and vexing USA energy conundrum. If we are to heed Jared Diamond’s sound warnings in “Collapse” about waking up to our foreign oil consumption blindness, we need a single, FOCUSED, widely understandable and achievable long- term GOAL which would underpin a long term Manhattan Project-like approach to solving our energy problem no later than 2025. Electricity in fact has been the main form in which most energy is transmitted and used except for transportation’s 240 million cars and trucks.
For years we have floundered, perhaps with decent intentions, by pursuing the energy problem with an unfocused broad menu of differing approaches and oftentimes conflicting policy objectives. It is within the nations reach to change that by focusing the country on one undeniable, overriding goal based on—ELECTRICITY to be used in virtually all the nation’s vehicles.
If we do this, we can achieve a triple play by
 reducing green house emissions
 getting control of our balance of payments, and
 becoming energy independent.
All simultaneously by substituting electricity instead of foreign source petroleum. Which methods to be employed to make this happen are, of course, crucially important; however, the clear first step is to get agreement on the overall goal. That should help set the stage to attacking the methods in a more rational and coordinated way than we have managed to date.
The last 100 years have seen wave after wave of innovation of all kinds build one on another to create in the aggregate an amazing economy and society. The discovery of petroleum was followed by electricity. Electricity begat telegraphy which led to the telephone. The telephone was followed by radio. Mixed in along the way were the internal combustion engine, aviation, mass production of nearly everything, improved agricultural productivity and the beginnings of social progress. And then came television and modern telecommunications and with that modern politics and a vast spread of wealth from modern finance which in part sprang from main frame computers and then morphed into personal computers which enabled everything. And, as if all of the above were not enough, the internet arrived and unified and multiplied everything which spread the greatest levels of wealth and democracy ever achieved in the world into every house and parking space in America.
And those parking spaces are where today’s story begins. With all the distributed wealth in America we now consume 20 million barrels of oil A DAY to fuel all the activities in our phenomenal society. And, about half of that oil we have to import from abroad because our domestic resources are insufficient to meet our needs. And, that is where our current problem has become fundamentally crucial and very serious. Largely because of our dependence on foreign energy sources, we are running a substantial financial deficit with the world in that all of what we buy from abroad exceeds what we sell. That deficit, which is very large and getting larger, in turn has weakened the dollar to the point that the cost of all our imports, energy as well as other goods and services, has risen enormously and will continue so to do ever more in a vicious cycle as the dollar inevitably weakens more. As far as the eye and mind can see that problem will continue to get worse —unless. Unless, we can break our dependence on foreign source energy by finding/using new sources of domestic energy, or substantially reducing our basic standard of living by using less foreign oil. Ironically, today our biggest economic challenges spring from our extraordinary successes over the past 100 years. And, while it is true that our balance of payments deficit may not prove to be fatal from an economist’s point of view, if our economy responds rapidly enough to the weaker dollar, why risk all the social damage that inevitably must occur to achieve that adjustment, if there is a reasonable way to avoid that risk.
Jared Diamond has shown us what happened only hundreds of years ago to some Eskimos, certain early Indians on our continent and virtually all the inhabitants of Easter Island, when those populations failed to heed many signs of their ultimate doom right under their noses. Our inability to heed the need to become energy independent by adopting a widely understood and agreed national strategy may be the most overriding problem facing the nation today.
While each wave of change built on the waves that preceded it, none of our original waves of innovation really ever became reinvented and took off on a new and much larger second life–until now.
The new, larger and reinvented life of one such previous wave that is coming—has to come, if we are to deal effectively with the energy challenge that puts our entire future at risk—is ELECTRICITY. About half of our daily consumption of oil, or roughly ALL of the foreign oil we import, is used to fuel our some 240 million vehicles.
As we develop new and efficient ways to create, distribute and use more electricity, which is obviously already a major staple in our lives except for most transportation means, we can over the next 15/20 years replace virtually all oil in almost all our transportation vehicles, mainly the 240 million cars and trucks [excluding only aircraft and military vehicles as necessary] and once again become truly energy independent. That would be the second wave for our old dependable friend, electricity. And, behold, if we achieve that goal, we will at the same time have made a serious dent in another crucial priority– global warming, by essentially eliminating emissions from those vehicles.
That same result also will strengthen the dollar and protect and continue our way of life and standard of living. As we show the world we are dead serious about replacing oil in our transportation systems, the dollar will soon begin to strengthen and should bring some relief in the cost of all our imports, both oil and other things, as we proceed with rolling out our new electricity policy, even though that will take more than a decade. As the foreign source petroleum world recognizes the handwriting on the wall, they will inevitably become more competitive and oil prices will respond accordingly. We must be alert to that fact and not allow any relief from peak oil prices to deflect us from our long term goal of virtually complete foreign energy independence, which relief periodically has been delaying us for the last decade and in large part is why we are in our present mess.
We have many ways to create electricity for the future —wind, solar, coal, tar sands, hydro, atomic, geo-thermal, burning of waste and use of ethanol. We need not, must not, defer declaring an ELECTRICITY goal until the market place has fully resolved which methods are the optimal, ultimate means to deploy to achieve that goal. Along with a clear long term electricity goal, we must embark immediately on interim goals, to stimulate each potential energy source, geared to appropriate time lines that will in the aggregate get us to the ultimate goal in 2025.
All of this is well within our capability and is definitely not pie in the sky. We will need to harness the focus of government power with the genius of the market place to orchestrate all the energy sources currently available to create sufficient electricity to meet our national goal.
We have today 103 atomic electric power generation plants in the US which supply about 20% of our current electricity consumption. [Incidentally, France makes 75% of its electricity from atomic power, Japan 30% and Germany 33%].
We have been stalled for 25 years in expanding our atomic based power, primarily due to political gridlock growing out of largely irrational fear and “Not In My Back Yard.” During these last 25 years virtually all the technical concerns and fears with atomic power generation have been addressed satisfactorily and solved here in the US and abroad, including how safely to deal with waste, operations and security and build new such plants faster and cheaper than was earlier believed. Of course, there will always be some residual risks, but we must be very careful to balance the risk of doing nothing more with this promising source of electricity against the increasingly minimal risks of taking steps necessary to securing our energy independence.
Now, only the hardest part remains, which is public education. That has to begin with political leadership. That leadership must first address the whole country with all the current facts and then present and drive the country towards a consensus on both the clear and present dangers we face and solutions bottomed on electricity. There is no better time to do that than during a Presidential election, which can focus the issues and create the necessary mandate to enable change.
Halfway measures of conservation and partial alternatives have been in the pipeline in recent years and have gotten us into the present mess by failing collectively to deliver material relief and have thus delayed a basic address to the problem. We continue to hear talk about the need for a broad energy policy but so far no focused, manageable, clear policy has been described or put forward. Now we have seen and heard of the attraction of ethanol as at least a partial substitute for fossil fuel. There are some merits to that idea but it is limited by the overall amounts that could ever be realistically achieved, by the unintended consequence of driving up food prices generally and by the fact that the emissions from ethanol also have their own adverse consequences.
Today there is already a lot of intelligent and useful talk about cap and trade, price floors, windfall profit taxes and carbon taxes—all of which are very important possibilities and will be essential elements, in appropriate ways, to making the implementation of an electricity policy feasible and economic. However, those steps taken with only market forces doing the steering of the big energy ship, we are very unlikely to move the needle sufficiently, without distorting the economy and/or creating some social disruptions.
Yes, we do need an energy policy; and it must be based on electricity. So why not simply call it an Electricity Policy? And, in addition give it the standing and governmental support we have given such challenges in the past such as the Manhattan Project and the Space Program.
Beyond atomic power, as noted above, we also can expand the creation of electricity from wind and solar methods. At the moment we are not globally competitive in those technologies, and we should be. The Sun can supply in the aggregate enough energy [electricity] in a day to power the whole world for a very long time, when we finally someday learn properly to harness it. But we cannot just hope and wait. In the meanwhile, a great deal of progress has been made in these types of endeavors by both government and private industry. That progress can be greatly accelerated by a national commitment to an Electricity Policy. But, we must recognize the present day limits of both wind and solar and not expect too much too soon and again defer the overall basic goal simply in hopes of a breakthrough in technologies. Hydro power is in some ways the best, [certainly the cleanest and sometimes the cheapest and safest in the long run] but we are at the mercy of geography which limits the number of places it can be achieved. Yet, some great old ideas are now being reconsidered, for example, the gigantic tides in the Bay of Fundy can be harnessed and ‘forever’ supply lots of electricity to us and Canada at very low operating costs.
And, we have enormous amounts of coal and tar sands domestically, but both sources require enormous amounts of energy to be extracted efficiently and both have serious environmental problems to be overcome. Still, we must also aggressively seek to utilize these sources as well. The same can be said of the burning of waste.
The core of an Electricity Policy almost surely must be strongly rooted in atomic power, since it has the potential of being the major source, other than petroleum and coal. Also it has the greatest potential to provide both sufficient electricity and be clean, efficient and achievable at the same time. In addition atomic power plants can collaterally produce excess electricity at night to desalinize sea water to meet fresh water shortages in many parts of the country, which are growing rapidly. It can also similarly be used to extract hydrogen from sea water for use in fuel cells, which in fact create portable electricity.
Which sources of electricity should be the winners is not a main goal of this paper. One of the reasons we have made so little progress up to now towards an energy policy is that the historically clumsy process of sorting out winners from losers has deflected us from the overall goal. Having a clear, focused overall national electricity goal will help to drive that sorting out process much more quickly and effectively. And various methods will, of course, need to be employed in the transition process envisioned.
We have already seen more than the beginnings of hybrid automobiles and the first serious examples of all electric cars are already beginning to appear on the market. Government cannot/ should not seek to build cars but government can help to create the conditions that can enable that to happen and speed up that process.
Converting virtually all our autos and trucks to electricity will require rapid advances of both efficient transmission and storage of electricity. In addition a great deal of new basic electricity infrastructure all around the country will be required for all our present non- transportation uses. Our national electric grid is already staggering and when in due course we ‘plug in’ 240 million vehicles, it could very well collapse, unless it has been strengthened as the process of all electric vehicles unfolds. This will require major infrastructure enhancements of the national grid which are already needed. This is yet another reason for an electricity policy. A lot of that development is already underway and that too can be sped up and brought to reality with more and better cooperation between government and private industry.
Our need for a national consensus on an Electricity Policy now requires two things  to start very soon to become completely energy independent no later than 2025 by using electricity derived from all sources, and  a willingness to harness the power and genius of government’s unique focusing capabilities to lead and enable the genius of private industries’ extraordinary ability to make things happen when the right conditions exist.
That will require reinventing and creating a whole new wave of the use of electricity as the main power source of our whole society, including most transportation, to continue the way of life we all want, as far as hope and imagination can reach, by successfully addressing our energy independence, global warming and foreign source energy problems, all at the same time.. In the spirit of American ingenuity, adventure, exploration we must give this solution a vigorous debate and chance to help break our long standing stalemate in solving this massive national challenge.