The following is an excerpt from a conversation that I had in response to an essay written by Gary Kunkel titled, “The Madness of King Coal.” While there are plenty of people who are critical of our current dependence on dirty fuels like coal and petroleum, at some point we must start talking about viable options to such fuels. The following details one possible way of converting our system from a gasoline based transportation system to one that runs on Compressed Natural Gas and eventual Hydrogen.
Brewski: “So what does this tell us? If you want people to carpool, use public transportation, use more efficient cars, buy solar panels, cool their AC to 78 and not 72 and all those holy grails of policy outcomes, then make not doing so really expensive…”
RESPONSE: You are dead on about higher prices causing major changes in the habits of consumers. The problem is; that is the exactly the opposite direction we need to go in. First, having the government artificially drive up the cost of living is not going to sit well with voters and it will only lead to the government using the new found revenue to expand its operations. Remember, government rarely goes through a major downsizing, so whatever we add to the farm, we have to feed. Second, artificially ramping up the price of fuel and electricity to spur conservation will ultimately have a huge detrimental effect on our economy.
While Republicans and Democrats like to each blame the other side when the economy falls on its face, historically major recessions have all been tied directly to the availability of natural resources. With the exception of the Great Depression which was tied to a super drought and dust bowl which put agricultural workers (the largest employment sector of its day) out of work, every other major recession since has been tied to an energy crisis. While it is true that each of these periods of spiked energy costs helped to encourage conservation, it did so by creating havoc in family budgets which ultimately caused people to stop consuming which ultimately brought the economy to a halt. We have to be very careful when we talk about crafting energy policy based too heavily on restricting energy to force less consumption. Additionally, higher fuel prices leads to inflation since energy costs are built into most every product or service. So consumers have less to spend and things end up costing more. It is a vicious cycle that is difficult to get on top of.
As much as many of us conservatives would like to see a small, less intrusive government, we have to understand that energy represents a natural monopoly as do most natural resources. As such, the government has a legitimate role in the production and distribution of energy as a mechanism of maintaining a stable economy. In fact, it is one of the only areas where government can have a positive effect on the direction and overall growth of an economy.
Here is one plan that I believe would work for helping to maintain a healthy economy while serving the need to remove our dependence on dirty fuels. (I wish I could say that I came up with this. Unfortunately, I cannot remember who did because they certainly are deserving of credit.)
First, the federal government needs to begin converting its entire fleet of vehicles to natural gas. If we begin doing this with the postal service, it will give fueling points at every post office. This will allow the state governments to use these fueling depots to then convert all of their vehicles which will also lead to the state government building their own fuel depots. It’s all about distribution here and by phasing in natural gas use in vehicles it will allow production and distribution of natural gas to gradually ramp up and won’t cause a run on the resource which will run its price up too quickly. At the same time that this is going on the Fed begins giving serious incentives in the form of tax credits to those that bear some of the expense of converting their own vehicles and gives industry similar incentives to companies for expanding production of natural gas ready vehicles.
Second, because natural gas is cleaner than gasoline but not completely clean, the government then begins working towards doing the same conversion and providing the same distribution with hydrogen fueled vehicles. Keep in mind that at every step through the process, anyone who has either a gas or hydrogen vehicle will be allowed to use any government fuel depot to fill up their car and any private distributor will have access to the distribution network. By expanding our use of Hydrogen we will also be expanding our production of hydrogen and advancing safe storage techniques. Once these techniques are perfected, wind and solar will both become more viable methods of producing electricity because hydrogen can be used as a storage medium for excess power that can be later reconverted at times when wind and solar are not able to meet demand.
Of course, nuclear and geothermal energy will likely need to play a primary role in our eventual conversion to hydrogen fuels, if we are going to be expected to meet the demands for hydrogen that will occur if every vehicle will eventually use it as its primary fuel source. (We should also consider how certain areas that are rich in geothermal activity may see a sort of gold rush during this era of conversions. Utah would be one of those states.)
This process will likely take 30 years to complete, but it is a plan that would eventually lead to a nation free from fossil fuel dependency. We also need to consider that as America goes, so does the rest of the world. As cheap natural gas, then hydrogen fueled vehicles cars begin to out pace traditional gasoline vehicles in production, the cost of these vehicles will drop below the price of their older siblings. This cost shift will translate into a global shift in the primary fuel source used for transportation.
For any plan to succeed, it must be something that can be widely accepted by many people of varying political backgrounds. I believe that this plan is one that both sides of the isle can get behind because it considers the need to reduce harmful emissions while being simultaneously concerned for economic growth. Ultimately, we need to worry less about how many SUVs people are driving and more about how to provide those SUVs to the public that use a cleaner fuel.
For those interested in using Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) or interested in getting involved in promoting CNG, here is a useful web site.