Saturday, April 22, 2006

Earth Day

Google Earth Day
Google celebrates Earth Day by reminding us all about the potential of renewable power sources. As gas prices rise to record levels, this is certainly where the focus should be. The evidence for global climate change has become more obvious not just in the scientific realm, but in the public sphere, with a warm winter, melting polar ice, a serious hurricane season behind, and the promise of more of the same in years to come. While that isn't the basis for the scientific consensus, those have done more to bring the public into the fold.

In talking to people about this, the common question is often "What is the solution?"

And that's the wrong question. Dealing with climate change means reducing our reliance on petroleum and other fossil fuels. That means making cars more efficient, replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescents, and transitioning to new fuel sources.

And what is the new fuel source? Again, wrong question. For a long time, we've had the great benefit of being able to get most of our energy from one source, but that era is probably ending. In the short term, hybrid cars that can be plugged in are a good option, as are flex-fueled vehicles (which can use up to 85% ethanol fuel).

The problem is that ethanol takes too much power to produce in the US (Brazil has had success with a largely sugar cane based ethanol industry), and electricity is still mostly made with fossil fuels.

The solar cells and wind turbines Google highlighted aren't enough on their own. Wind power is too variable, as is solar. Unless power companies build huge batteries and wind or solar farms capable of generating several times the needed power, they won't be enough. Nuclear power is an option, and one that many former opponents are coming around on, though waste storage remains a problem, as does the danger of an accident.

Hydrogen is not so much a production solution as a storage solution. Rather than mining a fuel that can relatively directly be used for power, hydrogen fuel would be generated from some existing energy source, and then burned to extract that energy again. Cheap, clean electrical power could allow hydrogen to be generated at fuel stations for use in cars, but expensive dirty electricity leaves hydrogen with no advantage.

The answer to better world doesn't lie with any one action, any one solution. But changing our actions in a broad ways, changing how we approach energy especially, can make things better.

Building a better world won't come through Captain Planet, because the problems don't come from evil people. It comes from short-term thinking.

Have a great Earth Day, and be sure you enjoy the Earth while we have it.