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    Greg and Beth

    the political and personal musings of two
    mountaineers living in west-central Florida
     
    Alternative Energy Comment
    Nick, 2/19/08 11:38:54 am
    "Alternative energy is the wave of the future," they say. "Fossil fuels destroy the environment," they say. "Fossil fuels force us into wars to secure our national interest," chimes the politician chorus. Are they right? Maybe, maybe not. I say, "Who cares?" With that said, I fully support some alternate forms of energy, just not with government involvement, of course.
    Here are the alternate energy sources I like and why these forms are drastically more important than those promoted by most politicians: Geothermal heating/cooling, solar panels and small, personal wind turbines. "Why limit it to just these sources?" you may ask. While I don't oppose other sources of energy, solar, geothermal, and wind are among the few available alternate energy sources that can break local utility monopolies and promote competition in a market drastically needing it. Ethanol, industrial hemp, cleaner coal, nuclear, etc. may be good and useful in traditional methods of energy delivery. However, they do not help solve the problem of high energy costs due to "natural monopolies" that break down competition due to the cost of running redundant systems of energy delivery in a municipality.
    Letís start with solar panels, because they are my favorite. Currently, there are numerous companies with solar panel technologies and who produce somewhat inexpensive consumer solar panels. The technology is available, but it needs investment to refine the production process so they can be cheaper. But imagine a world where you donít have to petition your city council against a rate increase whenever the local monopolistic company wants to raise its rarely-decreasing energy rates. Imagine a world where you don't get a bill for your energy, or if you do, you get to choose which company delivers that energy to you and at what price. Imagine a world where you can go to Wal*Mart (or a non-subsidized retail store) to purchase your energy. Solar panels do just this. They allow choice and competition on an individual level in electricity production, with no government involvement necessary. One can buy one brand of solar panels and someone else down the block can choose a different brand. Or one can choose to use several different brands to generate electricity for their house, apartment or business. Another glaring benefit of personal energy sources like solar is that the power grid cannot be shut down if a power line goes down somewhere because there need not be a grid at all. Also, terrorists cannot shut down the American energy supply by destroying a major power station. They would have to destroy every individual property to shut down US energy capacity.
    Small-scale wind turbines also hold some promise of breaking monopolies, but to my knowledge, there unfortunately isn't much work being done in private industry on these. Most innovation and competition is coming in the form of large windmills for wind farms, as one small windmill tends not to generate enough consistent electricity to be cheap and efficient and also tends to be an eye-sore for property owners. Although, I'm sure with the proper market motivations, small windmills could be produced and made to be more aesthetically pleasing.
    Geo-thermal heating is another source I like, but it only helps get a property "off the grid," whereas solar and wind electricity could completely remove a home or business from needing to work with a local monopoly. Geo-thermal heating and cooling systems also are much more difficult to install after a building is constructed. Still, geo-thermal can be individualized and is therefore worthy of investment.
    So, how should these energy sources be promoted? Should the government subsidize them? No, of course not. Government helping business is one of the problems in the first place. Individuals should invest in companies with good financials who produce inexpensive solar panels or in companies that are doing research in small windmills. Buy stock in such companies. Buy solar panels as soon as you can afford them. But donít ask the government to promote alternative energy, because you'll end up with ethanol subsidies, which results in as much pollution as oil-based fuels and which take land resources away from food crops, thereby increasing the price of corn syrup and every food that uses corn (and you will find it hard to locate many products that donít use corn syrup). Don't ask the government to promote alternative energy, because you'll end up with the same power grid, the same delivery systems, the same blackouts, the same local monopolies, and the same high energy prices.

    [Comments are closed after a month.]

    Re: Alternative Energy
    Nick, 2/19/08 10:42:29 am
    Sorry about the formatting...
    Re: Alternative Energy
    Gregory Morris, 2/19/08 10:43:22 am
    Allow me to play devils advocate for a moment...

    First of all, let's say that Solar (or wind, or both) is viable in most of the country (which it isn't, until the technology improves.) Personal solar power generally won't be enough to wean us off the power company's teet. I say this for a few reasons:
    1) For an individual homeowner, you may not have a great enough yield to provide for your energy needs, especially on cloudy days. If there is significant battery power storage, then a few weeks without sun is still enough to cause a serious problem. Still, I don't think there is enough energy there, at least with existing technology, for our ever-growing energy requirements.
    2) For industry, solar is definitely not enough. They still need coal burning power plants. Sure, more individuals can utilize solar to reduce their needs for fossil fuels, but industry usually requires more power than your average home. In addition, large apartment complexes and city buildings/skyscrapers simply don't have the required land mass to acquire enough of the sun's (or wind's) energy.
    3) It is usually difficult and expensive to retrofit older established buildings with solar panels.
    4) There are other environmental concerns... for instance sun-tracking solar arrays are not really an option in places where you have hurricanes, but roof-flush-mounted arrays are less efficient.
    5) How do you store energy for "rainy days"? Batteries pose all kinds of environmental and safety hazards. What other options are there?

    I'm not saying that a lot of these issues can't be addressed with further investment and R&D, but some of the hurdles are definitely hard to overcome. I personally believe in a more diversified energy strategy where you don't eliminate local utilities altogether. Basically, people should be encouraged (I'm fine with tax breaks as incentive) to generate their own power. They should be able to survive off the grid, but also add excess power to the grid. These ideas are already implemented in some locales. Of course, you'll end up with demand decreasing for coal-based power, which will cause the cost to rise. This will probably hurt industrial consumers short-term, but it will also prove to be an incentive to explore other alternatives. Of course, that also causes a problem to lower income families who can't afford shiny new solar arrays. The cost is still a barrier that has to be broken, and I simply don't see when or how that will happen.
    Re: Alternative Energy
    Gregory Morris, 2/19/08 10:44:12 am
    BTW, you can add your own HTML formatting if ya want :) All my code does it converts newlines to br tags.
    Re: Alternative Energy
    Justin Buist, 2/19/08 12:28:04 pm
    I don't know if it's Google's RSS Reader or the blog, but twice today 190 posts showed up in my feed reader.

    Weird.
    Re: Alternative Energy
    Nick, 2/19/08 12:30:03 pm
    Well, I had a big long thing all typed up pretty, but I decided point by point would be better, so...here it is retyped and even longer:

    Again, my point is more that local utility monopolies are a bad thing (in terms of individualism) and that government subsidies/tax breaks tend to focus on those sources that fit the traditional delivery systems and politics (local monopolies and power grids). Also, the grid system leaves our security terribly vulnerable, although that's not a huge sticking point with me. What happens if our country were to be in a major war? First thing a smart enemy would try to hit is the power grid. However, you are right that they are not currently feasible on a large scale and that there needs to be more development. Every popular alternative energy needs more research. That is why politicians propose spending my money on doing this research, but their reasons are very different from mine. They want to spend my money for the sake of the environment or to keep ourselves from having to be involved in the Middle East and Africa. Instead, I would like to spend my money so that I have an efficient power source that is not dictated to me by a local or national government.

    1) For an individual homeowner, the biggest problem I see is storage, as rainy days and snow are a major problem. Batteries, for now, are not quite feasible. However, battery technology is ever-increasing in the markets of other industries. Also, while this may not work in urban settings, rural and even suburban residences could utilize solar panels to convert hydrogen, which is a storable energy source, although this also poses problems because it could enhance the water utilities local monopolies (again it may not work in an urban setting, because of the danger posed by hydrogen tanks sitting everywhere).
    2) For industry, which tends to be relegated to the outskirts of cities in "industrial parks", smaller local grids may not be as bad a solution. With localized grids, competition could exist, at least in terms of where a new industry chooses to locate itself. And yes, solar, as yet would leave industry drastically wanting for energy.
    3) Retrofitting is a problem as it is expensive. So is digging up 5 city blocks every time you need the local utility to fix their underground lines or install new lines and capabilities.
    4) Environmental concerns are also conerns for other forms of energy. When the entire grid relies on one power station or one power plant, if a hurricane were to destroy or severely damage that power station, the whole grid is shut down. If an earthquake hits and demolishes a few city blocks and the power lines on those blocks, same problem. Small solar arrays would also have environmental problems. Hail, hurricanes, snow cover, etc, but only the damaged properties would be affected, rather than an entire grid, and there would not be a situation where all of New York City (and most of the Northeast) a couple years ago was down for a couple days.
    5) Again, battery technology improves by leaps and bounds. Is it where it needs to be for individual solar panels to be efficient enough to be a viable source? No. Will it get there with private investment and profit incentives? Maybe. No one knows the future. Also, batteries are not the only solution. As mentioned earlier, hydrogen conversion may be a useful storage method. Or for that matter, an entirely new storage method may emerge with further research and development (speculation of course).

    Diversified energy is good for other reasons and again, I said I don't discourage many of the sources offered as a solution. But ultimately, personal energy sources are a much more important goal for individual liberty and property rights (and energy prices) than local monopolies and grids. While large hurdles exist, they are no larger than most alternative energy sources (tidal energy has enormous hurdles, as do wind farms, large solar arrays, hydrogen, fusion, etc, even if much of it is political hurdles). And when government promotes its preferred sources (through subsidies and targeted tax breaks), we end up with terrible political solutions (i.e. ethanol, no new nuclear power, etc.), rather than energy solutions chosen by individual citizens and profit-driven companies. Perhaps a more viable personal energy source will emerge and I would suggest people invest in companies with that technology, but for now, solar, wind and geothermal look the most promising to me for personal energy sources and ridding ourselves of large grids. Lower income families have all the same problems in other fields: computers, transportation, etc. These problems can only be resolved by lower costs, which only comes with competition. No monopoly lowers its prices voluntarily. Local monopolies only do it at the behest of the local government (but I would not often try to hold my breath waiting for a major price decrease, even if they do occur on occasion).
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