Homer Simpson and America's energy problem


(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Our energy dilemma stirs lots of questions but few solutions. In "Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis," published by Harper in October, Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson look for answers that will sustain the country through shifting economic conditions. Bittle is executive editor of PublicAgenda.org. Johnson is a co-founder of PublicAgenda.com.

GUEST BLOGGERS: Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

Americans -- both the public and political leaders --- take the same approach to energy that Homer Simpson takes to, well, everything. When prices go up, as they did last year, it's "d'oh!" and all kinds of panicky solutions get put on the table. When prices go down again, it's "woo-hoo!" Time to ditch those resolutions we made.

But the problem with cheap energy is that there's no incentive to look for more. Alternatives like wind and solar aren't competitive when conventional energy is cheap, and companies even invest less in oil and natural gas. Since it takes time to get new options running, whether it's wind farms or oil rigs, the next time prices rise, we could be caught flat-footed all over again -- something that's likely to happen once the world economy picks up again. D'oh!

Here's the challenge: the world needs more energy even as it needs cleaner energy. Climate change gets most of the attention. But even if you don't buy into global warming, demand for energy worldwide is projected to go up 40 percent over the next 20 years. Almost all of that growth will come from China, India and the developing world, as more and more people live a Western lifestyle. If the Chinese begin owning cars at the same rate Americans do, that would put another billion cars on the road. Guess what that means for the price of oil?

There is talk about longer-term solutions. The cap-and-trade plan, for example, is designed to make fossil fuels more expensive and give alternatives a chance to compete. This isn't the only way to go, but at least it's aimed at changing the basic economics over time.

Sad to say, there are no quick, easy, cost-free solutions, but sticking with the status quo is even worse. If we don't reduce our reliance on oil and start looking for more energy from diverse sources, we could end up trying to outbid the Chinese for what's left of the world's fossil fuels. Not to mention what we'll do to the environment in the process.

It's all about making choices, and pretty fundamental choices at that. How will we generate electricity? How will we power our cars? When you look at it like that, the debate becomes much clearer.

For example, there are only a handful of choices for powering cars: we can stick with something liquid like ethanol, or liquid natural gas, or we can move to electric cars. They all have pros and cons, they all require investment. Plus we'll need to switch some 250 million cars that run on gasoline for cars that run on something else--not something you do overnight.

It's callous to ignore what higher energy prices mean for low-income families, and we need to think about how to mitigate that harm. But it's also true that world trends in energy are running against the United States. The only way to avoid the "d'oh" zone in the long run is to get ahead of the problem.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 4, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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We meed a North American Union like the EU made up of Canada, US and Mexico. Between the three of us we should be nearly energy independent. We should offer to buy all the surplus energy produced by Canada and Mexico in exchange for financial incentives and resources to pay for oil and gas exploration and alternative energy sources - wind, solar, etc.

We should spare no expense to drill for gas and oil in the entire Gulf of Mexico area. It is believed by many experts there is enough energy under the Gulf of Mexico to last another century. We should also assist Canada and Mexico in building more nuke plants.

We need to build more oil refineries in North America to insure we have enough diesel fuel. Diesel engines are currently the most fuel efficient engines available. We should insist that Chrysler/Fiat expedite their diesel fuel technology and offer these vehicles ASAP - even if it means to relax diesel emission standards for the next 10 years.

Posted by: alance | December 4, 2009 5:14 PM

There's the obvious tie-in: Homer works at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, and coincidentially the L.A. Times has a guest editorial by Philip I. Moynihan entitled "The Ignorance Behind Anti-nuclear Bias".

Excerpts: "People fear what they don't understand. The issues with nuclear power are not technical but social and political. The majority of the nuclear technical issues were resolved in the 1960s, and the technology today is well understood by engineers working with these systems. Yet efforts to educate the public regarding nuclear power are lacking, leading to the dangerous perpetuation of misinformation.

Nuclear power is the cleanest, safest and -- if other power-generating sources were compared fairly -- the cheapest method of generating electricity.

As The Times writes, nuclear power plants do indeed "take too long to build and cost too much," but only because of restrictions imposed on them that are motivated by political and social pressure as much as they are by safety. Coal-fired power plants, for example, not only emit massive amounts of carbon dioxide, they can be up to 100 times more radioactive than nuclear plants producing the same amount of energy. Raw coal has numerous impurities, including uranium, thorium and potassium 40. When coal is burned, these radioactive impurities concentrate at least by an order of magnitude".

Entire Editorial at:
http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/opinionla/la-oew-moynihan7-2009dec07,0,6458483,print.story

Posted by: shadowmagician | December 4, 2009 5:31 PM

Mr. Simpson has far more practical experience with nuclear energy than any of your pundits. Furthermore, since Justice Scalia sees fit to base our law of torture on "24", it is only appropriate that our energy policy be based on Homer Simpson.

Posted by: SpinozaofNewJersey | December 4, 2009 7:08 PM

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