June 23, 2006

Energy and Transportation Policy : A proposal

In the early 80's a group of American technology companies looked to the future and decided the best thing they could do to ensure their own futures was to form a consortium for research and development in which they could could pool their resources and knowledge to stay ahead of foreign competitors. They named the endeavor Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporataion, MCC for short. The State of Texas, looking to diversify it's economy in the face of fluctuating oil prices, wanted MCC so a Democratic Legislature passed and then a Democratic Governor signed laws that gave MCC land and set up a partnership with the University of Texas.

The result? UT has a world class information technology infrastructure and is one of the leading electrical engineering schools in the world. Austin, even after a recession, still has a vibrant technology economy, as does Dallas with the Telecom Corridor. What we need now is that same kind of foresight, but not in technology. We need an MCC for transportation and energy.

America and the world face a real problem... the end of cheap, portable energy. Note I'm not writing about the end of oil because that's just stupid. We will NEVER pump the last bit of crude from the ground. For one, fossil fuels ARE a replenishing resource, they just happen to be created over thousands, sometimes millions of years. The second reason we'll never extract the last drop of oil is that it will simply be too expensive. By the time you get to that point, oil would be at $100,000/barrel in 2006 dollars. At that level, it's probably cheaper to power your car off some kind of nuclear power source.

We are at the bare beginning of the end of cheap oil. It will likely take 10-15 years for real shortage problems to develop (at current growth levels) which would cause far more dramatic price movements than we've yet seen. Think $70 a barrel is ok? Try $350/bbl. It's going to happen and there's no way to drill ourselves out of the hole. As just about eveyone who has really looked this can see, we need a real long term solution that can meet out growing need for energy at a cheap price. That's why I'm proposing something that could do the trick.

Think about gasoline for a second. Other than the repulsive smell, what IS it? I don't mean a product refined from oil. I mean what DOES it do for us? It's an energy 'source' simplistically, not unlike a battery. A battery (storage medium) can be charged with electricity (energy) that can deliver it's stored electricity (energy) at a measured rate over time. Isn't that EXACTLY what gas is? The engine in your car is really nothing more than the positive and negative terminals on a battery... it's good for only one thing, discharging energy from gasoline and using that energy to move you and your car.

The easiest thing for us to do in a short time (over the next 5-10 years) is more fully develop biofuel feedstocks (soy, corn, even President Bush's much loved switchgrass), possibly genetically engineering them to be more fully refinable into fuel. The hardest thing is to invest resources into high conductivity electrical transmission, hyper-efficient discharge (motor) equipment, and high density storage.

There is no reason why someone shouldn't be able to charge a full size car in less than 8 minutes (the average time spent each time we stop at the gas pump) that can go more than 500 miles until it's next charge AND will drive like a car with an internal combustion engine.

So, what's the solution? How do we get from here to there? It's simple but it requires the kind of vision I've yet to see from any of the candidates for Governor (except, on occasion, Bell). Make no mistake, this could be a huge issue and I hope Bell will focus on it.

The key is to involve industry and government. Sounds simple, right? It is. Many companies are interested in this from GE to Austin Energy. It won't be hard to get them to underwrite the project, in cooperation with the State of Texas, as it will give them new markets and drive their future profitability. The State could mandate production facilities in Texas which would increase employment here. It's the right thing to do for the economy, for the environment, for our children.

We also need to think seriously about our transportation infrastructure which has not kept up with development and is beginning to be a drag on the economy. Toward this end we need a cooperative between the State and conctractors, consultants and materials companies to determine the best way to meet our ever growing transportation needs. Electric cars meet a definite need as personal transportation is going to continue to be the primary way Texans get from one place to another. However, with some of the technology that comes from that project, cheap high speed rail can be developed as can smart freeways.

Now's the time for bold ideas. Tomorrow will be too late. While this is hardly bold, it's definitely necessary.

Posted by Neumann's Machine at June 23, 2006 01:19 PM

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Posted by: Anonymous at July 11, 2006 01:58 PM

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