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10 November 2008

What No One Seems to Understand About Energy

Al Gore has announced that it should be a government mandate to stop using nonrenewable energy sources to make electricity within the next 10 years. A noble goal to say the least, but is it feasible or even right to do so?

First off, I agree that we need to curtail our use of hydrocarbons as soon as possible. Preferably by standardizing blueprints for nuclear power plants and building a ton of them... That being said, no one seems to understand an economic concept that I have never been able to articulate properly. I wonder why... There are a lot of people living on the very edge or poverty that have no savings and live from paycheck to paycheck. I'll get back to that.

The reason that hydrocarbons are used to generate electricity is that it is cheap, so to switch to renewable sources implies a higher cost for electricity. For most of us this shouldn't be a huge deal. Especially as the price of these technologies comes down, but what about those poor people I just mentioned?

Please excuse this analogy but it's the best one I've got. Imagine the human population as a mold growing on a food source. The food source in this case is money and the mold is the world's human population. If money represents our ability to produce the goods we need to survive then as this resource is reappropriated to other uses, such as higher energy prices, there's less money for things like homes and food. This will literally mean that some people will not have the means to survive. Or at least not at their current standards of living. In a colony of bacteria when the food source diminishes the bacteria communicate with one another and collectively "agree" to spread out, eat less, and multiply more slowly. It's actually a really interesting phenomenon that has nothing to do with this... the bacteria will even gang up and attack and single bacteria that doesn't go along with the group. Anyways, that's why places like China won't stop burning coal. To raise the price of energy would mean that it would be out of reach for hundreds of millions of people. They would be collectively agreeing to live below their current standard of living. Unless of course they decided that polluting less increased their standard of living... but that's another story.

The problem is like that of a SUV that you just bought. Gas was $2.00 when you bought the car, but now just a year later say gas is $3.50. The car is just a year old and should be kept for at least another few years (9 really), but the cost of gas has made your purchase much more expensive than you meant it to be. If the life of a car is just a few years it's not a huge deal. They will eventually be replaced by small cars. In the case of humans however, we live on average about 70 something years. What if the real price of living (as opposed to nominal) doubles in someone's lifetime? This is a serious problem.

Technologies can only be adopted as their cost becomes competitive. The only people who can afford electric cars and electricity produced by wind, or really any green technology that ends up costing more than it's hydrocarbon powered equivalent, are the affluent. This isn't something you can just mandate, even if we all agree it's the right course of action. Being green must cost less than the alternative. In my mind the line between "being green" and saving money are one in the same.

EDIT: I re-did my bacteria analogy as it previously made little sense.

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