Wednesday, May 17, 2006


3. Energy Conservation

I am listing Energy Conservation as the third major problem facing our country, after Income Disparity and the Failures of American Industry (I have explained why I think that the first two are connected). I started this list in response to comments about threats to our country from "foreign enemies". My position is that we face internal problems that are far more than threatening than any external threat (see my first post on 5/12/06).

There is a lot of talk about the energy crisis but no action. The predictions about the availability of oil run from the catastrophic (the world will run out of oil in 30-50 years, the position in American Theocracy) to the dismal (we will not run out of oil but it will become increasingly more expensive, the position of The Economist). Alternative sources of energy are overrated. Some cannot be produced without some consumption of energy (ethanol, hydrogen cells). Others pose safety issues (nuclear energy), environmental issues (wind mills), or have inherent limitations (energy from solar panels is not available on cloudy days). Yes, we should pursue all these alternatives but it looks unlikely that they could replace oil. The one source of clean and abundant energy, hydrogen fusion (the source of the energy of the sun), is still the subject of research and it is unclear whether it will ever become feasible. The only answer is conservation but nothing significant is done in that direction. It seems that the political will to implement simple measures (taxing "gas-guzzlers", subsidizing hybrids, subsidizing public transportation, etc) is lacking. By ignoring the problem we face a serious economical squeeze in the future. I have not discussed global warming because there are even more pressing reasons to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

One of the worst wasters of energy are short airplane trips. From an energy conservation viewpoint a plane trip from New York to Washington or Boston is criminal. A plane burns enormous amounts of fuel during take off and for a short trip this is not amortized over the distance. Trains are far more energy efficient and modern trains traveling in excess of 100 mph (as they do in Japan and Europe) offer travel times close to those of air travel. Even though a plane may travel five times faster than a modern train, the higher waiting times and trips to distant airports add at least three hours to a plane trip as compared to a train trip (two hours on departure and one hour on arrival). A back of the envelop calculation shows that the break even point time-wise is about 400 miles. Therefore, taking a modern train rather than a plane for a trip under 400 miles does not add to the travel time. And of course it saves a lot of oil. Keep in mind that the power plans that supply power to the trains can burn low quality fuels or use alternative energy sources such as hydro-electric power.

Someone may say that that improving train lines costs money and energy. True but we seem to have no trouble finding resources for building more airports! These days there is talk about building a fourth airport in the New York area because air traffic is overwhelming the existing three airports. Here is an alternative solution: (1) Reduce the number of (or even eliminate) flights to Boston or Washington. This will ease air traffic considerably; (2) Use for the funds to upgrade the train lines to these two cities rather than build a fourth airport.

Here is a plan that could save a lot of oil in the long run and produce a lot of industrial and construction jobs in the short run. Build high speed (120 mph and up) lines between urban centers that are within 500 miles. New York-Washington (that will probably be the easier because the existing Metroliner track is pretty decent); New York-Boston; Chicago-Detroit; San Francisco-Los Angeles; etc. Then tax heavily flights between such cities. If the Japanese, French, Germans, and others can do it, why not us?

Of course, while such a plan makes good engineering and economic sense, it is going to face huge opposition from the oil, auto, and airline industries so politically is a pipe dream. This is why I list energy conservation as a serious socio-political problem. Technical solutions are not that hard.

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