Monday, October 20, 2008

Homeland Energy Security: "Yes, we can" achieve energy independence - without drilling or nukes!

It was announced this week that through computer modelling a new kind of solar cell has been discovered that uses all the wavelengths in the visible spectrum ("all the colors of the rainbow") and acheives even greater efficiencies in electricity production at a lower cost than even the best photovoltaic cells previously known. The new cell also uses easily recyclable common materials -- plastic polymers doped with molybdenum and titanium. Once such cells are mass produced and fully deployed it appears that solar electricity will easily be able to outcompete all other existing sources of electromotive power and obviate the supposed "need" to build more nuclear power plants. In fact such breakthroughs should enable us to decomission all extant nuclear reactors.

It is this kind of American ingenuity that Obama fosters and encourages with his intelligent and uplifting approach to issues and with his empowering "yes we can" motto. The audacity to hope for, work hard to realize and then sieze and implement such scientific and engineering breakthroughs are the qualities that led America on its former path to greatness, a path we strayed from during the reign of the oil barons, but one that Obama and Biden will put us back on, with a faster, cleaner more finely tuned engine!

Obama, like me, is a child who came of age during the computer age. When Barack was 8 and I was 7 we saw human beings walk for the first time on the moon because a young president challenged us to have faith in our ingenuity. Today the power of the computers that got us to the moon resides the chips found in our cell phones, while even our consumer laptops are capable of modeling complex scientific and engineering realities. In a few hours of number crunching our personal computers can inexpensively simulate all sorts of experiments that would have taken innovators of the 1960's years to complete and which would have cost millions.

Because Obama's supporters, like me, are computer savvy and scientifically courageous, we know that in the time it takes to drill for offshore and Alaskan oil and bring it to market, and in the time it takes to build and operate those horrible radioactive mausoleums we call "nuclear reactors" (which Ralph Nader should write a book about called "unsafe at any voltage") we will already have invented and deployed clean, safe, inflation and terrorism resistant technologies based on truly renewable sources like solar, wind, tidal, wave, geothermal and non-food biomass sources. Those of us in the energy industry already know that ALL the solutions are already on the table, in development or out in the field, merely awaiting stewardship from a sensible government.

We see Obama and Biden as the government of sustainable development, a government truly of the people, by the people for the people that believes in the people because it IS the people.

What about so-called "energy independence"?

Energy independence is a complex issue in a global economy. We don't want America to become an isolationist nation again like it was in the 1800's. When McCain calls for America to be "energy independent" he sounds foolish. In Cailifornia we lived through the Enron scandal when an energy crisis was manufactured by greedy traders (on that score McCain is correct -- there is greed and corruption on Wall Street and in Texas as well as in Washington). During the period of our rolling blackouts that caused much damage and cost many lives, California was a net surplus producer of electricity. We were "energy independent" in terms of generation capacity. But because electricity after deregulation became a market commodity, traders could buy it low and sell it high to anybody on the grid, from California to Colorado. The same will be true of Alaskan oil and gas and the electrons produced by nuclear power plants. They will all enter the global market and thus will be traded and sold to whoever can pay the most. So much for energy independence.

A short-sighted government run by less intelligent men would call for tighter regulations and more market interference -- a return to the days before deregulation with state controlled water and power. It would try to comfort the American consumer by prohibiting the sale of "American-made energy" to foriegn countries, through some weird regressive kind of "import subsititution" policy. If the Democrats win, as we hope, but were to implement such a strategy of strong market interference, it would give the Republicans a chance to come back to power in 2012, running on the usual platform of "less government meddling".

But Obama doesn't strike me as one who will get caught up in the usual pendulum swing from "conservative to liberal ideologies and back again". He seems far too smart to get caught up in see-saw politics as usual. Instead I hear Obama saying he will use government for what it was created -- to break monopolies and prevent oligopolies, to REMOVE subisidies and handouts to big oil and nuclear, and to level the planning field, using regulations to control the excesses of the market, but encouraging the entrepreneur to invent better solutions by providing strong incentives and protections.

Homeland Energy Security through Household Energy Independence and Global Information Inter-dependence.

One policy that I will propose in an Obama led nation is that we achieve so-called "energy independence" by making households as energy self-sufficient as possible so that we can safely trade our energy surpluses on the free market. We do this, I propose, by becoming more INTER-DEPENDENT in our information sharing and global social networking so that we can rapidly develop and deploy technologies that give middle class households a chance to be energy independent even as the world energy markets get more imbricated with one another. My experiences living in Indonesia, Egypt, Guatemala and Germany and visiting and living in more or less autonomous "Eco-Villages" around the world, have shown me that all the solutions are out there, but often fail to get implemented because many of us in America don't look much further than our own regions and Truman-show-like real estate developments. Meanwhile we depend on a "pipes and cables" approach to the built environment that plugs us into centralized water and power suppliers who can raise prices at a whim and can adversely affect our lives every time the winds of global change blow in a different direction.

Instead we should be "weatherizing" our homes to get through both physical and financial storms, ensuring that every family can supply enough of its own grid-independent energy right there at home, so that nothing that happens in the market can affect our quality of life. Meanwhile we as citizens can contribute our surplus, literally home-grown, energy (coming from our roofs and backyards and parking lots) to the common weal.

This is disaster preparedness. This is true homeland security.

This is also the project we are working on at Solar CITIES in the ghettoes and slums and informal communities of Cairo, Egypt. wprking with a U.S. AID small infrastructure grant.

For the past two years we have been training households and local craftspeople to build and install and maintain do-it-yourself, community created solar hot water systems on their rooftops. This year we will work together to create urban rooftop biogas systems that use city garbage to create clean cooking and heating fuel, electricity and fertilizer. With households freed from dependency on "the grid" the government and the business community can afford to remove the 5 billion dollar a year subsidy they waste trying to keep oil and gas and electricity cheap for residents and sell their resources at full market value outside Egypt to bring in much needed hard currency. They can then use that money to reduce the deficit and invest in infrastructure.

America can do the same thing: We can use household level renewable energy solutions -- solar electric, solar thermal, small wind, micro-hydro, urban biogas etc. -- to free consumers from dependency on the overstrained national grid. When households are producing their own power (and selling power back to the grid through feed-in tariffs such as we have in California to help the entire state) the average family will no longer see any rise in their average energy prices. THEY will be energy independent. But America can continue to be energy INTER-dependent with the rest of the world, exporting energy to help countries in need, selling energy at a fair price to countries experiencing development booms (like the Arabian Gulf States!) and using our energy surpluses (once household demand is reduced or eliminated) to repay our national debt.

Thus I propose the following policy to my future President Obama -- trust us, the people, to innovate, and support us, the people, to implement the technologies that will make every American home and small business energy independent. Then help us develop large scale energy technologies like the mulit-megawatt capacity solar power towers, CSP fields and wind farms I've seen all over Spain and Germany that can give us excess power for our manufacturing sectors, and our urban centers and for export for hard currency. Stay away from filthy fuels like nuclear and so-called "clean coal" (my father in law worked in a coal mine -- he says it doesn't matter how much you try and clean it up after it comes out of the ground through expensive scrubbing and carbon sequestration technologies -- for the coal miner it is still a killer; clean coal, he says, "is like putting lipstick on a pig!"). Trust that we Americans, using our home-grown computer skills and our vast intellectual resources, will create a green economy to make America and the world safe places to live in, long before the first drops and chunks of dirty oil and coal and uranium are ready to go on line.

Think we can do it?

Yes. WE CAN.


My key policy suggestion is that we foster "home and homeland energy security" by empowering American homes to become energy independent first and foremost. The home energy security initiative would work to make sure that each home and apartment building in our country is able to provide between 60% and 100% of its energy needs in-situ, from a combination of rooftop photovoltaic, evacuated tube and concentrated solar thermal and small wind power as well as from local garbage fed biogas, and community scale micro-hydro, intermediate wind and biofuel production facilities. Once American households can take care of most of their energy needs without worrying about inflation or volatile energy markets, America can devote its larger scale energy generation capacity to help our manufacturing and business sectors as well as selling energy surpluses on the global market for hard currency. When international prices are lower, we could buy cheaper energy for domestic needs while selling more expensive energy on markets that can afford it, without ever affecting the pocketbook of the average "Joe Six Pack". Best of all, "Joe the Plumber" could be employed to help retrofit all these energy independent homes. And, using feed-in-tariffs and grid-intertie connections like we have in California, every home could help keep energy flowing in America, to help those in need during emergencies. In this way consumers could be freed from anxiety and America could pay off its national debt. For more information on this initiative, and how households can do it (yes we can!) see Home Power Magazine.