Monday, September 25, 2006

Technological Optimism and Pessimism

In the September 25th New Yorker magazine, Elizabeth Kolbert has a great Talk of the Town piece about optimism and pessimism. I had written similar thoughts a while ago--though not nearly as elegantly--and they had been gathering electron-dust until now.

Ms. Kolbert starts writing about transformers, those very boring but very necessary things that help bring electricity into your life. Like the old saying "you need to have money to make money", you need to use electricity to get electricity. All transformers convert some of the useful electricity into useless heat, but different designs have different efficiencies:

Last month, more than fourteen years after Congress mandated transformer standards, the Bush Administration finally got around to proposing them. (The original deadline was missed during the Clinton Administration.) To prepare the proposal, the Department of Energy assessed six possible levels of efficiency, ranging from the highest, known in bureaucratese as Trial Standard Level 6, to the lowest, Trial Standard Level 1. According to the department's figures, the ideal balance between the up-front costs and the long-term gains was achieved at Level 4. Nevertheless, the department turned around and recommended a much lower transformer standard, Level 2. The decision obviously makes no sense on environmental grounds---—in effect, the department is proposing to squander some twelve billion kilowatt hours per year, or roughly enough electricity to power all the households in Iowa---and also no sense on financial ones: the D.O.E.'s own analysis shows that the net cost of the lower standard will actually be higher over the life of the average transformer, which is estimated to be thirty years. The proposal leaves "billions in savings just sitting on the table," is how Steven Nadel, the executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, put it to the Christian Science Monitor.

[... two paragraphs about California's Climate Change laws ...]

President Bush likes to portray himself as a man of unwavering optimism. "“And so we move forward---—optimistic about our country, faithful to its cause, and confident of the victories to come," he declared at the close of his most recent State of the Union address. "“Ours is an agenda that is optimistic," he told the Republican National Governors Association the following month. "We believe in America. We believe in the ingenuity of the American people."


Just about every decision that the Administration has made on energy policy belies these claims. If you examine Bush's record, you find that the technologies he supports are either those which were developed in the past---—coal mining and oil drilling---—or those which lie securely in the future: cars and buses that zip around on hydrogen. When presented with new technologies that could actually change the way Americans live in the here and now, the White House wants nothing to do with them. Methods currently exist, for instance, to cut mercury emissions from power plants by as much as ninety per cent; the Administration is uninterested. Similarly, there are already (Japanese-made) cars on the road that comfortably seat a family of five and get more than fifty miles to the gallon. Yet it is only in recent months that the White House has begun to investigate the possibility of raising fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which have languished at twenty-seven and a half miles per gallon for the past twenty years. The new transformer rules are the first efficiency goals the Bush Administration has proposed; meanwhile, the D.O.E. has missed deadlines to raise standards for equipment ranging from dishwashers to fluorescent-lamp ballasts (and has been sued by fifteen states for its negligence). This is not the record of a technological optimist, of someone who believes in the "ingenuity of the American people."” This is the record of a pessimist.

(read the whole thing)

I think she gets it exactly right. Those arguing against the toughest standards on appliances, or transformers, for example, are saying "It's too hard, we can't do it cost effectively." Sure, installing pollution controls requires industry and consumers to spend money in the near term, but over the long term the investment can pay for itself in terms of lower health care costs, increased worker productivity, and creation of new industries and jobs. One example is a 2003 study by the Office of Management and Budget (PDF) which found that although the total annual quantified costs of EPA regulations between 1992 and 2002 were about $25 billion, the total annual quantified benefits to the U.S. were between $120 and $193 billion --- a payback of 500% or more!

Renewable energy and pollution control can create jobs, technology, and a potentially huge export industry. The San Francisco Bay Area is a good example. Manufacturing has been leaving the area in droves, but back in June the company Nanosolar, Inc. announced that it would build a new photovoltaic solar cell plant in San Jose or San Francisco. And Silicon Valley is starting to become a leader in another use of silicon: photovoltaic solar cells and the electonics needed to support the technology.

Contrary to what you might have heard from the Bush Administration or electricity industry front groups, the money spent to remove pollution and improve efficiency doesn't get buried in a hole in the ground. It goes to the people who engineer, manufacture, install and maintain the equipment. The products made by these people not only improve our air, water and land, but could become a key part of our export economy. As other countries develop and modernize (think about China and India), the U.S. could have a tremendously valuable portfolio of products and know-how to help those countries create a clean energy and transportation portfolio.

But not if the current pessimistic policies of the Federal government continue. Those policies will make the U.S. the world leader in importing oil and maintaining outdated coal power plants (see New Source Review, for example) instead of in pollution control, energy efficiency, and alternative energy.

The same could be said about a sustainable, local food system. That's a subject for another day....

Image credit: Smokestack image from tEdGuY49's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

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