I have been this week on a business trip to Chicago. Yesterday, I ran across a man wearing a "No War" button. Sadly, he turned out to be fairly intelligent, and broke off his conversation with me in less than five minutes.
This afternoon, walking back from work to the hotel, I saw three young men from Greenpeace on the sidewalk on my side of the street. I smiled at my inner thoughts ("And me without a baseball bat...") and I guess that one of the young men took this as a welcoming expression, and asked me to talk to him about energy policy.
Joe, as he turned out to be named, was actually a very nice guy. He explained that they were trying "to raise money to fight Bush's disastrous energy plan." He went on to give a little spiel about what they were trying to do, and asked if I were interested in joining.
I tried to give him an out: "I really don't agree with a lot of Greenpeace's policies, so that would not really be appropriate for me to do."
Joe didn't take the out: "Can you give me an example of something you don't agree with?"
Me: "Well, I can give you several, but I don't have the time to go on at that kind of length. I'll give you one, though. In California, there are windmills all over the hills, but they seldom run. The reason is that these tend to chop up birds in flight, including endangered migratory birds. Greenpeace fought hard to get California to pay for putting in the windmills, and Friends of the Earth, I think it was, fought hard to get California to shut them down. So in the end, all that ended up happening was that California taxpayers spent a lot of money to put a large number of metal poles on their hills. Not really a good use of public funds, I think."
Joe: [blink blink...thinking for a moment] "I see what you mean, but don't you think that we need a cleaner alternative?"
Me: "Alternative to what, exactly?"
Joe: "To fossil fuels, like oil, coal and natural gas. They pollute the environment when we burn them, and Bush's plan increases our dependence on oil, which means that there will be more oil spills like the Prestige, and more strip mining, which destroys the environment. I used to work for a company which made microturbines, but Bush cut funding for alternative energy research and our clients went elsewhere."
Me: "Wasn't the Prestige a Greek ship? And wasn't it taking oil from Russia or Latvia or something like that to Singapore? "
Me: "I guess you were just using that as an example, though. I certainly think that it would be nice to have alternatives, but I don't see any, really. None of the clean 'alternative' sources work very well, when you think about it, nuclear isn't politically possible, and none of the really good-looking alternatives will be here for years yet."
Joe: "Well, if Bush hadn't cut funding for alternative..."
Me: "Oh, I don't really think that's a problem. In fact, it's really a good thing, because if the alternatives were feasible, they'd work without the government funding. Funding things through the government just leads people to make bad choices and it's really destructive, ultimately. I'd rather let people make their own choices of alternatives, then have the government choose for all of us."
Joe: "But is that really worth destroying ANWR and killing all that wildlife?"
Me: "Have you been to ANWR?"
Joe: "No, have you??!"
Me: "No, and you know what? We can see more people from where we're standing than have been to ANWR in the last decade or so. It's a wasteland, and if we're going to mess up the environment somewhere, better there or in the Arabian desert than, say, West Texas, which at least makes good farmland. Anyway, they're talking about so few wells over such a large area, the average Caribou - assuming it ever sees a well - will be displaced by a couple of hundred feet. I think I can live with drilling in ANWR, really."
Joe: "Wouldn't you rather have some clean source of energy that doesn't do any damage, like solar or wind power?"
Me: "Well, really, that's not viable. You can only get solar and wind in low densities, and in a few places. The cells are pretty inefficient, and you have to ship the energy a long distance - which is pretty inefficient - and store it - which is pretty inefficient. I'm not convinced that a solar plant would generate more usable energy than it consumes to build and maintain the plant and the storage and transmission infrastructure for it. Wind's got the same problem, plus the birds, and both solar and wind energy can't be easily shipped around to where they're needed. Oil you put in a truck and put it where you need it. "
Joe: [blink blink]
Me: "There are some alternatives I'd like to see, though."
Joe: [brightening up considerably] "Like..."
Me: "Well, like fusion. That's been 15 to 20 years off for a long time now, but maybe they'll get it soon. It's theoretically possible, but frankly I don't think that they'll be able to do it with the tokamak designs. They'll need something new. Microwave power satellites would be a good choice, if you could solve a few engineering problems first, like how to build and maintain a structure like that in space, and how to get the power to the ground without having fires catch if the beam goes off target. What I'd really like to see, that is practical and available now, is to reduce the economic and regulatory burdens on nuclear fission plants. France and Japan, for instance, generate most of their electrical power from this source and have done it safely for decades."
Joe: "What about the nuclear waste?"
Me: "In comparison to coal slag and oil spills? I'll take it. Besides, we can seal it in glass, put the glass in containers, and put those in deep salt mines where they'll be safe for tens of thousands of years. Or, we could take those containers, and drop them into subduction zones in the ocean and let the waste be recycled in the molten rock it came from. Well, that would probably require us to actually drill in the subduction zones to get through the silt, so it might not be economically viable. Besides, like I said, it's not really politically viable. I suppose there is one way I'd support getting rid of the fossil fuel economy now, though."
Joe: [brightening again] "What's that?"
Me: "The population of the world prior to the industrial era was, I think, about 250 million. If I could administer the tests to see who lives, I'd consider it."
Joe: [dispiritedly] "I think I'd better go talk to some more people now."
No voices were ever raised, and we parted with a handshake. Given the rate at which Joe's compatriots were stopping people, I figure I kept three or four people from talking to Joe. Since none of them seemed to be signing up, though, I probably didn't lose them any money. Shame, that.Posted by Jeff at March 6, 2003 05:05 PM | Link Cosmos