Sunday, March 06, 2005

From 'Road Warrior' to renewable energy

In the 1981 post-apocalyptic adventure film, Road Warrior, Mel Gibson plays Max, savior to a peaceful clan of Australians protecting an oil refinery besieged by petroleum-hungry hoodlums. The hoodlums--desert pirates--need the petrol to run their decrepit assortment of stripped-down and jerry-built vehicles that allow them to launch raids over a wide area.

The story has a happy ending. The peaceful clan manages to escape to a faraway place using a tanker convoy that carries much of refinery supplies with them, a stratagem that leaves the desert pirates without the means to pursue the clan. Is it a tale of a post peak oil production world or merely an allegory for the flight to the suburbs? Whichever it is, the interpretations are related and for now it's difficult to tell whether either will have a happy ending.

That is the concern of a new U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) report that has yet to be released, but has been summarized by one of the authors. The report focuses on "viable technologies to mitigate oil shortages associated with the upcoming peaking of world oil production." The author believes there are currently no substitutes for oil in transportation that wouldn't require at least 15 years of lead time to bring up to the scale needed to prevent shortages. And, he believes that a crash program would be required to achieve the necessary scale of production. The upshot: "Because conventional oil production decline will start at the time of peaking, crash program mitigation inherently cannot avert massive shortages unless it is initiated well in advance of peaking." He adds, "If peaking is imminent, failure to act aggressively will be extremely damaging worldwide."

Fortunately, two groups are offering blueprints for crash programs of the very type the DOE report calls for. The Apollo Alliance has outlined a $300 billion 10-year comprehensive federal crash program designed to wean the United States off fossil fuels by adding hugely to our renewable energy sources. Perhaps the plan's greatest virtue is that it has political considerations firmly in mind. It aims to get passed. It includes energy assistance to low income households, an emphasis on high-wage union jobs, a focus on manufacturing and retrofitting, firm support for environmental protection, an appeal based on energy security and a plausible promise to pay back all the government subsidies and grants through increased economic activity and the taxes it will generate. The authors of the plan are currently gathering a broad coalition to make the plan a reality.

The so-called SHINE Project, short for Solar High-Impact National Energy Project, has a smaller price tag--$5 billion over 10 years--but promises exceptional results. For example, under the SHINE program the equivalent of 48 million households could be served by solar power by 2025. The authors (one of whom is Joel Makower, consultant and fellow blogger) believe that only 2.8 million homes would reach this status without the program. In addition, some 580,000 new jobs would be created if the manufacturing is done in the United States.

Neither program claims to be an endall. But, they represent the bold entrepreneurial thinking that has made the United States a powerhouse of technical progress. The programs will be criticized by those who think the marketplace will take care of everything and by those who think government has no place in solving such problems. That thinking will have to be overcome. Will oil at $100 or $150 a barrel be enough to do the trick? Let's hope we don't have to wait until that happens.

Which leads us back to this question: We will blunder blindly into a future filled with "road warrior" cults engaging in combat over the last table scraps of industrial civilization? Or will we choose the soft path of cooperation and renewal? The clock is ticking says the man from the DOE. It's not only of question of whether we will make the right decision, it's whether we will make it in time.

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