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Posts Tagged ‘Green technology’

I thought I knew.  I thought it was pretty clear during the campaign for President. We all knew where Barack Obama stood on a lot of issues – and he was very forceful, indeed eloquent, in stating his opinions.  It was clear that his philosophy was left of center. He was a strong supporter of the Democratic Party. Just look at health care.  It seems to me that he said time after time that he wanted all of us to have the same health care choices that members of Congress have. We would be able, under his administration, to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of health care plans – just like the fat cats we elect to Congress. And why not? Indeed.

The thing is that when push came to shove in Congress and the Republicans unanimously said, “Not only NO, but HELL NO”, Barack Obama chose to compromise. He made a deal. The result is that we have some sort of new health care plan that does do some things and may even provide some small additional benefit to each of us a few years from now.  But for most of us nothing has changed. So, I’m beginning to wonder – where is the idealism? Where is the fight? Or, could it be that Barack Obama isn’t a fighter at all? Perhaps he’s just a deal maker.

It’s not just health care.  It’s also energy.  Remember the campaign and the conventions? Remember the Republican Giuliani shouting, “Drill Baby, Drill!”  Remember Sarah Palin saying we need to do offshore drilling right now? Remember John McCain taking up the chant of “Drill Baby, Drill”?  Actually, they’re pretty quiet right now aren’t they? But that’s not my point.  Remember Barack Obama had this ideal about clean and green energy? Didn’t he? Am I just hallucinating here? Wasn’t he going to build a bunch of windmills and solar panels to create a new source of energy for America? Didn’t he make some kind of a deal with MIT to do research on clean, green energy? Wasn’t he against offshore drilling and nuclear power?

So, a few weeks ago – a couple of weeks before the BP catastrophe, didn’t President Obama say we need to do a lot more offshore drilling? Didn’t he? Am I just imagining this?  Where did that come from? Did I miss a news conference or something? Did MIT get back to him and say, “Forget about clean and green, just go for dirty and smelly?”

And now BP has screwed up the Gulf of Mexico for as long as most of us will live.  So what is President Obama doing? He is letting BP call the shots – even though he says he is in charge – BP is making all the decisions. So what about the opinions of his scientific advisors?  Does he really have more faith and trust in BP’s scientific expertise than that of his Nobel Prize winning Secretary of Energy? That ain’t right.  Something’s wrong here.

The question I have is simple – what does President Obama stand for?  Or could it be that we were all wrong in thinking he was some kind of pragmatic idealist. Maybe he’s just a political deal maker after all – just like 99.9% of the people in Washington.  Is that it?  If so, I think he will find that America didn’t vote for him to make deals – they voted for him because they thought he believed in his ideals and that he would fight for them on behalf of the American people. We thought we were on the same page with him – but he keeps turning the pages.

At least with George Bush you knew where he stood. He was a shoot from the hip wannabe cowboy.  A Yale transplant to Texas.  He wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer – that was abundantly clear whenever he spoke. But you knew what you were getting when you voted for him: you’re-on-your-own-Republicanism. Don’t look to Washington for help when you need it ’cause it ain’t comin’.  Just ask the people of New Orleans. They know all about that.

But Obama was supposed to be different. But once again the people of New Orleans are suffering and our President is letting an oil company decide what to do about the worst oil spill in history. Is that leadership? Is that what we voted for? Of course not. Now, I’m not saying that John McCain or Sarah Palin or Rudy Giuliani would do any different – but that is my point.  Obama was supposed to be different. But in the end, Washington is letting us all down once again. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

You don’t find roses growing in a swamp, do you?

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For America’s capitalists, it is the 800 pound, unacknowledged gorilla in the room.  China has the most successful economy in the world today. Despite the current worldwide economic meltdown that has caused the worst recession in America since the Great Depression, China has not had a recession.  The great engine of the Chinese economy has chugged along, continually churning out the goods that we have all come to rely on for our everyday needs – now that, it seems, almost nothing is made in America anymore. So, does this mean that Communism is superior to Capitalism? (I can almost hear John McCain and Sarah Palin choking at the very thought – not to mention the entire Republican Party. How can we even ask the question, they would say.  Isn’t it unAmerican to even ask questions like that?  I’m sure it is in Sarah Palin’s world.)

The question, however, is a valid one. What is going on here?  If capitalism is such a great economic system and communism is such a vile system why is China on top and not the U.S.?  In case you missed it, because the U.S. press tends to ignore economic successes in China, it was announced yesterday that China now has the world’s fastest high speed train. It travels at 380 km/hour (236 mph). Even more notable, China plans to build 42 more high speed rail lines in the next three years, covering 13,000 kilometers of track (about 8,000 miles).

If that isn’t enough, consider this: China is the world leader in Green technology. Even as President Obama is talking about starting a green tech initiative, and even while he is hoping to recharge our economy by major investments in green tech, China is the world’s largest producer of wind turbines, and it is also the world’s largest market for generating power from the wind.  It has 10 gigawatts of newly installed wind power generation capacity. So how much wind power generation capacity does the U.S. have? About 1/10 of China’s capacity – not much more than a gigawatt.

China is what the U.S. was.  China is the merchant to the world these days. China is the banker to the world too.  China has demonstrated capabilities in space that rival the U.S. Apollo program.  China recently hosted the Olympic games and put on a show that amazed the world.  So – do all of these accomplishments mean that communism is a superior economic system compared to capitalism? Not necessarily.  Consider for a moment a much smaller country that also made major economic advances in the past – a country that is primarily Chinese, yet is far from being a communist country. I am referring to Singapore. As small as China is large, Singapore was once a part of Malaysia. An island state, and now an island nation, Singapore was not much more than a port city – a stopover for merchant ships plying the far east trade routes. However, that all changed with the election of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.  Lee took control of Singapore and it’s economy.  Far from being a communist, Lee was a capitalist – except that he believed in planning. For Lee, uncontrolled capitalism made no sense. Under his guidance, Singapore’s economy flourished.  Singapore is now a major hub for international finance, technology, and tourism. Lee Kuan Yew implemented a carefully drawn plan for economic growth – a plan that included strict controls on business practices (as well as lifestyles).

The lesson that can be drawn from Singapore and China then is not that communism is superior to capitalism, or that capitalism is superior to communism when we are talking about economic systems. Both can produce good results and both can produce disasters. The key to success for both China and Singapore has been intelligent, responsible government.  It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize that intelligent design will always succeed over random chaos.  Darwinian economics of the sort advocated by the most right-wing of politicians – every man for himself and let the government just stay out of the way – is a recipe for economic disaster and chaos.  The Neanderthal economic doctrines of Bush/Cheney of  “just let ‘er rip” led to the greatest financial disaster in eighty years.  The lesson we need to learn is that non-functioning, or dysfunctional governments inevitably lead to disaster.  Intelligent, thoughtful, responsible governments lead to success.  The key is not whether the government is communist or capitalist, the key is whether the people who are in charge have intelligence, integrity, and compassion for the people of the country – all of which qualities were lacking in the Bush years.

We are not out of the woods yet. Just one look at Congress shows the problem we face. Obstructionist Republicans in Congress use every trick that can think of to stymie legislation on almost any topic – except war – they like war.  Health care reform that might bring America into the civilized world of the 21st Century is held up so that the Republican cronies in the insurance industry can continue to feed off the people. Never mind that so many people suffer and die without health insurance. Anything for a buck.  Obstructionist Republicans create a situation where almost nothing can get done in Congress and the country is unable to move forward on any major initiatives whether they are related to health or the economy. That is the principle difference between China and America.

Once upon a time we had people in Congress that honestly worked for the “good of the country”. Today, the “good of the country” is a joke. It’s not about the country, it’s about power and control and money in your pocket from whichever lobbyist has the most.  China is our largest creditor. China is our major supplier of consumer goods.  China is growing while we are stagnant.  The reason for this is not the “isms” of economic systems; the reason is intelligence and integrity in government – both of which have been in short supply in our nation’s government for far too long.

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A few days ago, President Obama gave a speech at MIT during which he reiterated the need to switch to green energy in order to preserve the environment.  He also said that the use of fossil fuels, particularly foreign oil, places the country in a precarious situation. If a foreign country cuts off our oil supply it could cause great hardship in the U.S.  He also said that a massive effort to create a green energy industry will be a significant stimulus for our economy. Speaking about the worldwide competition to create new sources of green energy he said, “The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy.”  I’m not so sure of that.

As usual, isolationist Americans tend to be unaware of advances made in the rest of the world.  Ever since we won World War II we have had a tendency to view ourselves as the world leader in anything technological. It might then come as a surprise to many Americans that the call to action for the creation of green energy has been heard a long time ago in Europe – while Americans were happy to drive their gas guzzling SUVs and Hummers and heat their homes with fossil fuels and generate electricity with coal.  While Americans were comfortably cocooned in their homes watching football on their widescreen TVs, Denmark was busy building gigantic windmills for the generation of electricity. Today, Denmark is the world leader in wind-produced electricity, a result of a National plan developed in 1976.  They make some mighty large and mighty efficient windmills in Denmark. It’s not clear to me that even MIT can overtake the Danes anytime soon in this type of technology.  Do we really think we will be producing next generation windmills anytime soon and be selling them to the world?  The world already has significant wind generation capability.

What about solar power?  Surely the world needs that. True, but the world has been working on that for quite a long time – while we were driving our SUVs around town trying to find houses we could flip.  Germany is the world leader in solar technology and has been for quite a while. The Germans are currently building a 40 megawatt solar power plant for their own power generation needs. I doubt that the Germans will be one of our customers for solar power technology. Germany is the world leader in producing solar power.

OK, so what else is there? Nuclear? Whoa, hold yer horses, fella. What do you mean “nucular”?  That’s dangerous. Don’t you know they make bombs out of that stuff?  We Americans don’t want that! (Just disregard our stockpile of thousands of nuclear bombs.) Meanwhile, the French – actually not “meanwhile”, ever since the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973  the French decided that they would never again be held hostage to foreign oil.  So they built a bunch of nuclear power plants all over France.  France is the world leader in nuclear power plant technology, not the U.S. I don’t think they’ll be lining up to place any orders from the U.S. even if we do decide to resume nuclear power research.  The leading institution in the world for the future of nuclear energy, i.e. nuclear fusion, is called ITER. It’s in France.  Under the Bush administration the U.S. had all but dropped out of this research effort. Our country stopped paying its dues and had almost zeroed out all funding. Meanwhile the other six members of ITER: China, European Union, India, Japan, Korea, and Russia have made great strides toward the production of power from controlled nuclear fusion – a process that produces very little radioactive waste. Recently the U.S. chipped in a little money that helped to make back payments that the Bush administration failed to make. Even so, we are hardly on the cutting edge of nuclear science compared to the rest of the civilized world.

The fact that President Obama wants to spend a lot of money on energy projects in America is good news. It’s about time. But let’s not kid ourselves. The rest of the world is way ahead of us.  The Obama plan will undoubtedly create more jobs in the U.S.  for people who will be engaged in energy research. It is something we need to do.  It is also something the rest of the world realized they needed a long time ago.  It is unlikely that we will find a large foreign market for our energy technology, whether it is solar, wind, nuclear, or anything else in the near future.  We have too much catching up to do. Because of that, it is unlikely that launching a massive energy research and development project can be the near term solution for our economy. We won’t be exporting windmills to the Danes, solar panels to the Germans, or coals to Newcastle. They have enough, thank you.

The fundamental problem with our economy is not that we don’t do energy reserach, it is the outsourcing of people’s jobs by multinational companies.  We simply cannot go on having our multinational companies make everything in China and then sell it to us in Wal-Mart stores while we get the money to pay for all this stuff by playing economic bubble games and getting home equity loans.  Green energy research is good. It’s good for the scientists and engineers who need jobs. It’s good for the environment. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not going to be the solution for the much deeper problems of our pathetic economy.  The solution will only come by tackling head on the iniquities of multinational economics and the exportation of American jobs and manufacturing capabilities to foreign countries.

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Economies are based upon a simple principle: supply and demand. This can be restated as: “You have something I want, so I’ll give you something of value in exchange for it”.  In the past, economies have been built upon things that are produced and desired, things like food, cars, homes, clothing, and so forth. The list can go on and on, but the distinguishing thing about most of these items is that the items that are being bought and sold are necessities. Or maybe they are things that are greatly desired and affordable: things like music, jewelry, gold, Hummers, and so forth.  Whenever there is a strong demand for a product, and the ability to pay for it, you can create a viable economy.

The problem with Green Technology is that while it does some very good things, like making the environment cleaner, it’s hard to find a lot of people who are willing to shell out extra money for that.  We all know its a good thing and we all know that if we don’t take care of our environment we will all suffer, but how many people really want to pay extra for it?  For the answer, just recall how many Americans bought SUVs two years ago compared to those who bought Hybrid cars.  The only reason Hybrids are becoming popular now is that they can save on gasoline costs, not because they emit less carbon dioxide.

So, I have to wonder, if we transition to a green technology economy will that actually stimulate economic growth and create ten times more jobs than we have now? Or will we just replace existing jobs with new, green jobs? One for one job replacement is not economic growth.  Will the average American rush out to buy a new Green Car because it pollutes less?  I don’t think so.  Will we all go out and buy a ton of Green insulation for our houses so we won’t have to burn so much carbon-based fuel? No, we could have already done that, and we haven’t.  Green is an admirable goal.  Green might even save the planet, but I doubt that it will save the economy, because while we might create a huge supply of Green products, I don’t believe we can create an equally huge demand for them just because they are Green.

If we want to stimulate our economy we need to create the new, next  generation of products that people actually really, really want. We need to create products that people want so badly that they will work extra hard to get them.  That’s what makes economies tick.  Here’s an example: I am tired of driving long distances on interstate highways at 70 miles per hour.  It can take all day or longer to get anywhere that is 1,000 miles away.  I suppose flying might be am option, but what if there are no major airports near where I live and where I want to go? Suppose the interstate highways are really my only option?  Is there a solution for this? A technological solution? Sure there is.

Suppose we took a giant leap forward an created cars that could go 200 mph. 300 mph, or more! I know, I know, we would all kill ourselves.  But wait.  Suppose we also equipped the high speed lanes of our interstates and our new, next generation ultra high speed cars with a pseudo GPS system where we would have an “autopilot” in the car?  Suppose all I had to do to drive from New York to Atlanta would be to select my destination and then get into the Pseudo-GPS-enabled high speed lane.  (This pseudo-GPS would use surveyed ground stations, not satellites.)  I could zip along to Atlanta at two or three times my current speed – maybe more.  It would be like high speed rail, only it would be more flexible.

So, would there be a demand for that technology?  Would Americans buy cars that would go coast to coast in 12 hours or less?  Of course.  We are an impatient people, we want to go everywhere fast.  This sort of thing would create a ton of new jobs in pseudo-GPS technology; high-speed, computer-controlled cars; high speed road technology, and much more.  If it also used Green technology, so much the better.

Green is good, but reducing the amount of CO2 we spew into the environment isn’t going to create a rush to the malls. It is only exciting  innovation and new products that dramatically improve the quality of our lives that will spur the next major growth spurt in our economy.  Green can’t do it alone.

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