Friday, December 5, 2008

Our Moon Shot is Far From A Clean Shot: Relevant Energy and Environmental Concerns

President-elect Obama is moving swiftly to name his team, and the order of his nominations and appointments could be seen as an agenda priority list. First, the economy, then national security, and next up is energy and environment, with several prominent names from science and politics in the mix. Just as with the other issues pressing on the soon to be installed new President, the challenges are huge, complicated, and have far reaching implications for immediate conditions and future aspirations. And although he indicates that he wants the White House to "go green," the scope of the issue will require a comprehensive, forward reaching, energy policy as yet unattained in previous administrations.

Although the price of gasoline has plummeted in recent months, Americans are still smarting from energy prices that tipped many households into financial ruin, so timing and urgency are of the essence. Of all the soundbites coming out of the presidential conventions, it was the assertion at the Republican National Convention that energy independence must be this generation's "moonshot," which might well be something that everyone in the spheres of politics, business and society can easily agree on.

Make no mistake about it, this rare agreement stems from chilling evidence that we are perilously close to the conditions that existed during "the great dying," otherwise known as the end-Permian extinction, which occurred 251 million years ago. It was "the worst of earth’s five mass extinctions. Ninety percent of all marine life and 70 percent of terrestrial life disappeared. It took five million years, perhaps more, for the biosphere to recover." Conditions, an environmental "horsemen of the apocalypse" scenario, are accumulating at an alarming rate, and fears of an unknown tipping point make the necessity of bold action clear.

However, agreement on strategies to both avert a calamitous environmental event, as well as achieve the mission critical mandate of energy independence, are far from consensus. Ethanol based biofuels, once the environmental darling, are quickly losing their appeal as countries around the world flirted closer to food shortages of catastrophic proportions, although the large money interests behind them keep them far from the periphery of potential solutions.

European nations, notably Sweden, continue to work out the challenges of biogas, in which sewage is captured and transformed into fuel, but convenience complaints and a setback when Volvo (division of Ford) ceased production of a biogas vehicle have hampered progress. Several nations are also actively pursuing ways to safely and effectively capture methane gas hydrates, which are "flammable ice crystals packed with hydrocarbons." The sheer amount of this lesser known resource, and significant advances on ways to bring it to market are making it something akin to a goldrush, perilous and potentially packed with profit. But there are significant concerns about the risks, such as the effect of the release of the trapped solar heat from millions of years ago contained in these packed parcels that could very well exacerbate, and perhaps accelerate our environmental problems.

And then there are the reliable stand-bys that we have been willing to get off the ground for decades, such as solar. Affordability has been a key detractor, but recent advances, combined with increased compatible governmental policies and subsidies are making this option more and more feasible, and some say that “In five to seven years, the idea of building a home without solar energy on it will be as silly as building without plumbing.”

Although early deployment results have been mixed at best, hopes for the electric vehicle are resurgent, especially with the battery advances that prototypes such as the Chevy Volt offer, if they can avoid insolvency to be able to bring it to market, as well as a innovations and business models from a host of other non-traditional start-up entrants into the fray. Hawaii is boldly plugging into the electric model, and an entrepreneur, backed by convincing endorsements, who stands poised to build a comprehensive electric network to support the technology. Aided by an equally as bold and ambitious venture to harness ocean wave power, activity in this sector of energy provides some interesting alternatives to fossil fuel based energy options.

Already the specter of innovation to generate new "clean tech" jobs and break the geo-political strangle hold of oil is invigorating to a global economy watching the collapse of old business models and the growing and potentially destructive leverage of oil rich regions of the world. But as in all the pressing policy agenda items before our nation, execution is key, and it remains to be seen if the new administration can find the right balance of present dividends and future sustainability necessary to seize upon yet another historic component of this moment in time. You know, no pressure.

Photo courtesy of CA department of fish and game

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