Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The oil spill and alternatives

It's good that plenty of people are re-evaluating the value of off-shore drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill disaster. It's a shame that it takes a disaster of this magnitude to get enough momentum behind it -- we always fix problems just too late, if we fix them at all -- but at least we're thinking about it in a way we have neglected, apart from isolated people making ineffectual noises.

However, the current focus on banning off-shore drilling is a very superficial response to much bigger problems. A simple ban won't really fix anything. Our need for energy is undiminished, so we can't simply close off one source without expecting to replace it with another source. That's going to drive prices up even more than us paying the bill for BP fixing this will drive them up (where else is BP going to get the money other than by charging us more?) and even that's only the start -- the energy still has to come from somewhere, price regardless. So where will it come from?

A lot of people get moon-eyed at this point and start talking about wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric power. To be sure, these are promising possibilities, but people like to imagine they're ready to go, and all we lack is the will to spend the money to put them into production. The fact is, none of them are ready to produce even a fraction of our energy needs, nowhere near enough to make up for all the oil garnered from off-shore drilling.

Even with our best solar technology, the amount of acreage we'd have to cover to produce enough energy to supply a major city would be phenomenal, so big that it would start to conflict with other land use needs like cropland, wilderness, wildlife habitat, and the water cycle. If we'd been pouring more money into developing solar the last few decades, maybe we'd have practical, inexpensive solar collectors with ten times the energy-per-area capability, but we simply don't. It's the same with wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric power; plus each of these has its own set of environmental impact challenges to be addressed.

In addition, producing more energy in the form of electricity can only plug so much of our energy gap until we move more of transportation to electricity. Hybrids won't do it, and even the slow return of electric cars is only going to make a dent until we're also talking about electric trucks and airplanes. Until then, even if tomorrow I figure out cold fusion using ramen noodle packets, we're still going to need to drill for oil until we make a costly and time-consuming complete switchover of our transportation infrastructures.

Perhaps the best hope we have for an environmentally friendly power source is nuclear power, but no matter how good it is, it's always going to be tarnished with a bad name that'll make it hard to justify the expenditure. What's particularly galling is that the two real problems with current nuclear power plants (the chance of meltdown, and the waste disposal problem), though both not nearly as serious as people imagine, could be instantly resolved if we just switched to thorium. We used uranium primarly for the sake of enriching it for nuclear weapons, but if we used thorium, we'd have clean power with nearly zero environmental impact at no higher cost than uranium, with virtually no waste to dispose, and no risk of meltdown. This is by far the best solution available to us, but it gets no traction because of the unfortunate associations of the name.

Ultimately, we can't responsibly talk about shutting off one energy source without talking about either replacing it, or making big changes to do without. The latter seems very unlikely, given I have to fight with people in an office in Vermont, of all places, to turn off a light when they leave a room empty behind them. So let's talk about replacing the energy from that off-shore drilling while we talk about banning it. Let's talk about the whole circle of the problem, not just one step.

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