Letter from the Editor

Thursday, July 24, 2008

An upside to high gas prices?

Okay, so it has finally reached the point where you can put your Escalade in a box and mail it wherever you are going cheaper than you could drive it. Crazy, isn't it?

So it's going to sound odd to say this, but it might be just what we needed.

Because we lunkheads of my generation didn't learn a thing from the last gas crisis, and went right back to wasting energy as quickly as possible, building cars that are even more inefficient than they were over a generation ago, building our lives around access to volatile supplies of oil lorded over our heads by incredibly wealthy and incredibly unpredictable people with towels on their heads.

This time we may have actually got the point. Of course there are those who think that all we have to do is get Congress to rape more Alaskan refuge wilderness, clutter the coastline with more oil rigs, and we can go right on with our wasteful ways forever.

They would bury their heads in the sand and try not to notice that oil is a finite resource no matter how much you drill or how much you are willing to compromise the environment. There is a need for judicious drilling - for example, with the price of gas now, it makes economic sense to go back to long-closed oil ranges and steam the less accessible oil out of the wells. There are said to be huge untapped oil deposits in the ocean near Brazil that could be harvested with little risk to human or marine population - with high oil prices, it makes sense to go to places like that which previously weren't thought to pencil out.

But simply more oil faster isn't an answer.

Thanks to high prices, the future of energy has never been brighter. Since we would really, really like those lights to stay on, we've finally had to get serious.

For the first time, carmakers are putting genuine effort into the development of energy-saving vehicles for real people instead of the odd showcar. I'm not sold on electric cars totally, but there's an amazing world of options from hyrogen to hybrid to biofuels. And though we are from Iowa, sorry - we are going to have to admit that corn-based ethanol isn't the solution - at least not nearly a full solution by any measure.

When they first started putting wind turbines up around here, they were basically a token novelty, a nod to green PR chatter by the utility companies, representing a tiny fraction of their energy profile and even then feasible only with big government subsidies. But under $4 gas, the field is suddenly wide open. Wind, solar, hydro and switchgrass aren't just novel science experiments any more, they can make economic sense.

Nuclear energy has been considered a no-no for 30-some years now, but why? A threat at Three Mile Island and a Chernobyl disaster? One was the result of error by primitive instrumentation and poorly trained people misreading them, and the other was completely caused by using a nuclear reactor improperly as a foolish experiment. Wouldn't we rather build new plants that incorporate all we have learned, that sentence ourselves to keep running on now-outdated nuclear facilities perpetually because no one is willing to utter the "n" word?

Nuclear is a tremendous source of non-carbon energy, and we could certainly learn from past mistakes and new technology to build safe facilities. We didn't abandon our gas cars because one woozy Exxon captain had a crack-up with his tanker.

It took $4 gas to cause us to reduce the miles we drive and the fuel we consume, for the first time. It took $4 gas to make us rediscover our feet, bikes and scooters for short jaunts, which makes us a healthier society - and we can use it.

We've been living in an internal-compustion mindset that really hasn't changed philosophically since Henry Ford's day. Compare a biplane to a Stealth jet - then look at your new pickup's engine next to that of a 1930s model.

Our scientific community hasn't done much about energy, because it was always there and always relatively cheap. Heck, you couldn't pay a kid to go on the Universe of Energy ride at Disney World - who cared?

It took $4 gas to jack up the exploration for new energy ideas. And now our area community colleges are developing advanced education programs to train the future workers in an emerging alternative energy field, knowing that's where the good jobs will be - not long ago, they would have laughed at such a concept.

As you read, it seems that almost daily we are tapping into new concepts to find and create energy in ways we couldn't have imagined before. Energy has become exciting.

All because of that @#$%&*@!! $4 gas.

In the back of our minds, we always knew the oil would not be limitless. Only now, as we have begun to have to pay the piper finally, we are also learning that our imaginations are limitless.

As bleak as things seem at the pump, because of it, our future energy prospects couldn't be brighter.

Now, if only I could figure a way to run a jeep on a tank of optimism....