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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Pardon Me While I Get Up On my Soapbox

Note: I did most of this from memory. If some of my facts look wrong, please feel free to go look 'em up! I'm writing this as accurately as I can, but like I said, I'm doing it from memory...

The Government MUST Lead...


Once upon a time, way back in the 1970s, the bell-bottom-wearing people here in the United States of America elected Jimmy Carter as our president. Mr. Carter soon found himself trying to manage a nation in the midst of an energy crisis. Mr. Carter repeatedly stressed the benefits of conservation and tried his best to wean the nation from its dependence on foreign oil. As a symbolic gesture, he ordered solar panels to be put on the White House. People started driving smaller cars and were starting to be more aware of our environment.

Thankfully, due to Mr. Carter's foresight, the auto companies have had thirty years to develop electric and alternate fuel cars, solar panel technology has grown by leaps and bounds due to market demand, and, like Brazil, we're now totally free of our dependence on foreign oil. Our farmers are selling American-grown crops to Americans to use as fuel. Most new houses built in the past fifteen years are "off the grid," creating their own electricity through rooftop windmills and solar panels. Global greenhouse emissions are down. Everything's peachy indeed!

Ha! Wouldn't THAT have been nice? The truth is, we're no farther now than we were in 1978. In fact, we've dug ourselves deeper. United States republican president Ronald Reagan took the solar panels off the White House roof in the early 1980s, and since then we've been driving bigger and bigger cars and generally ignoring the problem. (I guess it's more important to start unneeded wars and argue about the morality of two women living together than it is to save our children's planet. Silly me.)

Today, nearly 30 years after Mr. Carter started the conservation ball rolling, we're facing unrest in the Middle East (where we get the bulk of our foreign oil supplies), oil prices have skyrocketed, and global warming is looming. It's estimated that some parts of northern Eurasia and Alaska are now over 11 degrees warmer than they were a century ago. Some northern bears are suffering from insomnia and are skipping their winter hibernation altogether. Glaciers are retreating. Ice caps are melting. This is happening, and it's serious. As an example of how things are changing, the other day it was 65 degrees here in Iowa -- a rarity for late November -- but it was snowing in Florida the same day. Soon this is going to affect more than polar bears (did you know that the polar bear population is now below 20,000 bears worldwide?) and will start affecting our climate. Think it doesn't affect you? Think of how we've treated Mexico lately -- building walls between our nations, snubbing them politically, etc. Now think of how they're going to react in ten or fifteen years when we're wanting to buy corn and wheat from THEM. It could happen, and if it does, be sure they're gonna charge us plenty!

What can we do about it? Lots. A little scientific background first...

The most important ingredient in the global warming problem is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a normal part of the carbon cycle, but if too much of it gets into the earth's atmosphere it causes a "greenhouse effect" - it traps the sun's warmth below it. There is a fixed amount of carbon in the world - we can't make more, and we can't destroy it. The carbon is here, and we need to deal with it. The problem is that humans have been taking carbon out of a "sink" (sinks are places in the carbon cycle where carbon is sequestered over a long period of time), namely fossil fuels, and are putting that carbon into the atmosphere.

One of the prime movers of carbon is the plant kingdom. Through photosynthesis plants remove carbon dioxide from the air during the day and release oxygen back into the environment, keeping the carbon in the plant's structure. Thus, biomass (the totality of plants) is considered a carbon sink. The carbon gets released back into the environment when the plant dies and decays or is burned (and at night plants actually "exhale" a little of the CO2 they absorbed during the day, but they do keep most if it). If the plant is buried under muck for millions of years, it turns into coal or oil -- holding the carbon until the coal or oil is released. (This is where the greenhouse effect comes into play - we've been taking carbon sequestered in the fossil fuels and dumping it ALL into the environment in one big swoop.)

So... back to the question. What can we do about global warming? The way I see it, there are two main ways to go about it. The first is to follow Mr. Carter's example and cut back on our use of fossil fuels, thus reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that gets into the environment and putting more carbon dioxide into the carbon sinks, sequestering it. The second option is to keep on using fossil fuels, but utilize some big-time brute-force engineering to lower the earth's temperature. Most of the options I list below will fall into one of those two categories.

Prevention:

There are a lot of little things that can easily be done to help the environment. They will all be painful to someone somewhere, but most things can be done with a minimum of fuss.

LIGHTS: An example is the simple light bulb. I propose that our government ban the sale of incandescent light bulbs altogether, thus forcing us to gradually replace our existing light bulbs with fluorescent bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs are now being made that fit into existing light sockets, and they are four to six times more energy efficient than regular old incandescent bulbs. (From www.energystar.gov: "If every home in America replaced just one light bulb with a fluorescent bulb we would save enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes for a year, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of nearly 800,000 cars.")

I feel the government would need to ban the manufacture and sale of incandescent bulbs simply because the fluorescent bulbs cost about three bucks, a couple dollars more than regular old light bulbs, and most people don't wanna spend the extra dollar or two for a light bulb. What most people don't realize, however, is that in addition to saving a few pennies in fuel costs, the fluorescent bulbs last just about forever! I replaced the light bulbs in my house with the screw-in fluorescent bulbs a few years ago, and I haven't had a single bulb burn out since. I used to replace a few bulbs about every six months or so... So the extra cost was well worth it! If we ban the manufacture and sale of the regular incandescent bulb it would be painful for the company that makes 'em, but surely the overall benefits to society outweigh the discomfort of re-tooling to manufacture a different style bulb.

"But how does a light bulb create greenhouse gases?" you may ask. Simple. The bulb doesn't. But the energy used to light the bulb comes most often from a power plant that burns coal to make electricity. If we got our electricity from power plants that utilized solar, wind, tidal, nuclear or geothermal sources I guess it wouldn't matter much what kind of light bulb we use.

INSULATION: This one's simple, too. Newer houses are well-insulated, but often older existing homes aren't. Couldn't the government send a couple guys out to put weatherstripping around the doors and windows of older homes? It's a cheap thing to do, but has a big impact. We could fund this through a slightly increased gas tax if we need to, or perhaps by taxing, say, regular old incandescent light bulbs.

GOVERNMENT EXAMPLE: If I were king for a day, I'd make a law that all government vehicles (with the exemption of military vehicles of course) be hybrid at the least, preferably all-electric or hydrogen powered. The technology is in place. This can be done. Think of how much money this would save the taxpayers over the years in fuel costs alone. Mail trucks are a perfect example - they don't often have to go over 55 miles per hour, they're only used eight hours a day (leaving sixteen hours to recharge), they're used for stop-and-go driving which is perfect for electric vehicles... (I'm not saying that the government needs to immediately sell their fleet and replace it with hybrids all at once, but any new vehicles the government purchases should be hybrid.)

Put the solar panels back on the White House roof. Our government should lead by example. Years ago I read an article in a back issue of Analog (in an open letter to Mr. Carter, no less) wherein the author stated that it would be very symbolic if the government could light up the Washington Monument (and Lincoln Monument, etc.) using solar power. I feel it should be taken many steps further than that. It should be mandated that EVERY government building, monument, edifice, etc. be made energy self-sufficient to the highest degree possible. Put solar panels on the roof of the courthouse. Build a wind turbine next to the National Guard armory. Again, the technology is in place. We just need the government to lead the way and show us how to use it.

REDUCE CORPORATE CONTROL: I read recently that a farmer near here spent $40,000 to put up a wind turbine on the assumption that the power he didn't use would be sold back to the power company. His motivation wasn't to make money, he just wanted to be self-sufficient. But if he could sell the excess power for a couple bucks, why not? Well, in an exercise of corporate muscle, the local utilities company not only refused to buy electricity from him, but actually made him shut his new turbine off altogether! That story may very well be an urban legend, but the point is valid - if we're going to wean ourselves of foreign oil and reduce our greenhouse emissions, we NEED to limit corporate control. We cannot allow ourselves to be pushed around by utilities companies and big oil executives. If they're afraid of losing money, well, that's their problem. They can re-tool to provide different services easily enough if they have to. (Here in the Midwest the vast majority of people used to be directly or indirectly involved in agriculture a hundred years ago. Due to advancing technology, now only a fraction of those people are working in ag-related business. All the rest of the people learned a new trade and moved on with life. This can happen in the fossil-fuel industry too. It can be done. It's been done before. It's uncomfortable for a while, but it can be done.)

TRANSPORTATION: This is the biggie that everyone's been talking about. We burn fossil fuels in our cars, and the exhaust goes straight out our tailpipes and into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. (The other evil of this is that we're dependent on foreign oil to run our cars and trucks. If we solve the pollution problem, it's likely that we'll solve our oil dependency problem at the same time.) What can we do about it? Lots.

We're starting to see viable hybrid gas-electric vehicles on the market now. (These are cars and trucks that have both gas and electric motors. The vehicle uses a combination of the two to its best advantage to raise gas mileage.) The problem, in my mind, is that hybrids are too expensive, and at the moment they're not attractive to the mass market. We can get the "expensive" part by lowering taxes on hybrid cars to make them more affordable. Another possibility would be the government giving interest-free car loans to people who buy hybrid vehicles. A big part of the cost factor, however, could be alleviated by simple supply and demand -- force the government to use hybrid vehicles (as I mentioned above). This would force American auto manufacturers to build more hybrid cars, thus lowering the cost of production, and at the same time would eventually put a bunch of used hybrid cars on the market when the government fleet gets replaced years down the road.

I was in line at the drive-through at the bank the other day. There were six vehicles in line - three big SUV's, an H2 Hummer, an old Cadillac, and my little Geo Prism rustbucket. At times like that I always wonder why people need SUV's in the city. "But I need it to haul my two kids around..." Bullpucky. My dad hauled his three kids around just find in a station wagon. I think we need to put a limit on just how big a non-commercial vehicle can be on our city streets. (Personally, I think anyone who drives a Hummer or one of the big SUV's around is compensating for something, but that's a topic for another post.)

Our American society needs to take a good look at public transportation, too. Europe and Japan, from what I hear, have excellent public transportation systems. We can learn something from them... Sioux City does have a public bus line, but it's inefficient. I often see a full-size diesel bus belching black smoke on its way up the street, carrying only two or three passengers. I think our city would be better off by getting rid of its existing fleet of big buses, replacing them with half-sized hybrid buses, and doubling the number of routes. That would decrease considerably the amount of greenhouse gases emitted while simultaneously giving better service to more people - thus getting more people out of their cars.

People talk of hydrogen being the fuel of the future, and likely it is. The immediate problem is that the most cost-effective way to create hydrogen right now uses gasoline... So that's not gonna help anything in the near future.

Other alternative-fuel vehicles are starting to hit the market -- notably "E85" vehicles. These run on a mixture of gasoline and ethanol, which is created using renewable sources such as soybeans and corn. Brazil started down this path thirty years ago (remember Mr. Carter?) and is now fully self-sufficient; they don't import ANY foreign oil whatsoever, relying instead upon ethanol-fueled vehicles and their own oil supply. Again, we'll need our government to take the lead on this, and thus far they've failed us miserably. The government should further subsidize the purchase of E85 vehicles, and should reduce taxes on ethanol fuel in order to lure more consumers to the technology. This is already done to a small extent, but I guarantee you if there's a dollar a gallon difference between cheap ethanol and expensive gasoline, there would be a much greater demand for E85 vehicles!

WIND POWER: Wouldn't it be nice if we could develop small wind turbines that we could mount on the top of our house or garage to augment the power we get from the electric company? The technology is getting closer to making this a reality, but (as was mentioned earlier) legislation will have to be put into place to keep the utilities companies from lobbying against this technology. There are currently large "wind farms" in California and the Midwest with big huge wind turbines creating electricity - this is a great first step! We need more commercial wind farms, as well as eventually developing "personal" wind turbines. Any energy we get from non-fossil sources is good energy!

TIDAL POWER: Our government needs to look into "underwater windmills" - put a turbine with large, slow-moving blades underwater to take advantage of tidal energy. This has been tested, and it works very well. But, again, we need to legislate for this.

All of these things, and much more (such as using wave energy, and I never did talk about geothermal power), should be done to limit the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Conservation alone won't solve the problem, but it's a good first step.

Brute-Force Engineering

Remember when I said earlier that the other way we could pull ourselves out of this situation could be by brute-force engineering? Instead of lowering our greenhouse emissions, we can simply let global warming happen and cool the earth's atmosphere. (I got most of this information from the July/August 2003 edition of Analog magazine - "From Salt Foam to artificial Oysters," pages 43-51, written by Dr. Richard A. Lovett.)

ORBITING SHADES: Someone smart figured out that if we reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the earth by 1.8% we could alleviate global warming. One possibility is to put big black panels in orbit around the earth to act as giant shades. If we are clever, we could put solar panels on the back of 'em and have them do double-duty by having them beam energy to earth in the form of microwaves in addition to creating the needed 1.8% increase in shadows. Can we do this? Yes. We have the technology. It'd sure as heck be more expensive than changing a few light bulbs, but we can do it.

CLOUDS: Another smart person figured that if we put little floating "mist machines" in the oceans to put more water into the atmosphere we could increase global cloud cover by 15%, thus decreasing the amount of sunlight by the needed 1.8%. It would be a major feat, however, to create the millions of "mist machines" or atomizers needed, get them distributed equally throughout the earth's oceans, keep them from drifting around, and keep ships from hitting them.

CARBON SINKS: If you've been reading this whole thing, you'll remember that part of the carbon cycle includes carbon sinks. It's been proposed that we simply take some of the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and put it in a sink, sequestering the carbon there where it can't get back into the atmosphere. One way to do this would be to simply take a whole bunch of plants (biomass) and dump 'em into the deepest, darkest spot in the bottom of the ocean and keep it there. The plants, of course, have been taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and will release that carbon when they decompose. By preventing the decomposition, we "lock" the carbon in place, keeping it from doing any harm. So, some people have proposed that we do massive reforestation, harvest the trees, and dump 'em into the Mariana Trench. The problem with this is that we'd need to put a LOT of biomass out of commission, and along with the carbon, we'd be taking a lot of nutrients absorbed by the plant material out of commission.

People have also considered taking limestone slurry (limestone absorbs CO2) and using that to collect the carbon dioxide, then dumping the slurry down a mine shaft or something. To be honest, I didn't study enough chemistry to understand this concept, but it doesn't sound all that feasible to me... In order to get enough limestone to do the trick we'd have to start strip mining again, and I don't like that much.

SCIENCE FICTION: There's always the old science fiction standby of simply moving our planet a bit farther away from the sun when it gets too warm. Or, of course, moving to another planet altogether and starting over. Needless to say, I'm not gonna hold my breath... These things are simply NOT feasible at this time.

It seems to me that prevention is more feasible than any of the "brute-force" engineering solutions.

The Conclusion...

I've noticed that one common thread through every solution I listed is government. We need to let our elected officials know that we're concerned about global warming, and that we expect them to take the lead in taking steps to alleviate the problem. The United States has, under the Bush administration, refused to sign the Kyoto accords -- thus placing America squarely in the "environmental bad guy" column. This needs to change. America needs to grab the bull by the horns and deal with this problem in a responsible manner. This can happen on a local level (some cities in the Pacific Northwest have "public bicycles" available for people to use in their downtown districts), the state level (maybe now that Iowa republican Chris Rants can't block legislation we can get our state government to require state-owned vehicle fleets to be E85 or hybrid), or the national level (tax breaks for non-fossil power plants, funding for research, signing the Kyoto accords, etc. -- if our government is uncomfortable with Kyoto's emission trading plan, well, can't we suggest something else?)

Many of the solutions simply need governmental determination to make them happen. We're currently giving a TON of money to the Saudis in exchange for oil. This doesn't make sense. Why not give a TON of money to America's farmers in exchange for soybean or corn products that will burn in modified engines just fine? The only thing stopping this from happening is Big Oil's powerful lobbying of congress.

3 Comments:

Anonymous gloria-williams@uiowa.edu said...

Chris,
I'm a journalism student writing a report on wind energy and the utility companies. I want to know more about that farmer with the turbine who was forced to shut down by a utility company. Please tell me where you read that incident and if you can, how I can reach that farmer.
Thanks so much!
Gloria Williams
gloria-williams@uiowa.edu

3:32 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Shoot, Ms. W, I can't find that article anywhere. It's not on Snopes, so it's not an urban myth, and I know I didn't just invent the story (I remember reading it)... But for the life of me I can't remember where I got the information. I'll keep looking, though.

5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

according to wikipedia, water vapor is actually the main greenhouse gas.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_gas

10:33 PM  

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