Archives for the month of: November, 2008
It seems like there is no end in sight these days in terms of the dire news seeping out of our media outlets regarding the U.S. economy. Consumer spending is tanking, jobs are being lost, and the cost of our energy resources are rising.On the heels of the presidential election, I have been pondering what our next moves might be domestically in order to jump start our economy. And instead of looking to the sky, which, according to many, is falling, I have chosen to explore the ground–a place overflowing with resources which are so valuable to our nation’s future.

The seeds of this thinking comes from my vacation planning efforts to a country robust with natural, ground based resources.

Iceland

Being of an urbanist mindset, the capital city of Reykjavik has been the darling of my attention for quite some time. Known for its eclectic nightlife and natural beauty, it is one of our world’s hidden gems in terms of a tourist destination. What’s most remarkable though about Reykjavik is that it runs largely on geothermal energy, compliments of the “milk and honey” resources embedded in the country’s land mass. For many world leaders, the Icelandic model represents the gold standard in terms of the sustainable use of clean, natural resources.

“OK”, you say. “But the United States is not Iceland.” Wait, not so fast. What’s seldom talked about in our domestic energy debate is the vast amount of geothermal resources gurgling below the ground, awaiting our use. California, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico are all hotbeds of enormous geothermal potential. Northern Nevada, in fact, currently leads the U.S. in producing 9% of all of its electricity from geothermal sources. And according to recent estimates, there is enough of a geothermal base from the western swath of the U.S. to energize nearly 12 million homes.

Take California, for example. Nestled in the northern part of the state along the Sonoma and Lake County border is an area affectionately known as the Geysers, where steam is currently being tapped on a daily basis to meet 60 percent of the energy demand in the North Coast Region from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border.

That’s why in the midst of the “drill baby drill” oil debates, the U.S. Department of Interior recently announced plans to release 190 million acres of land–nearly twice the girth of California–for geothermal leasing in 12 Western states. It is also why the Silicon Valley mecca Google is planning to invest over $10 million to support the development of long needed advanced technology for accessing this underground heat so it can be converted into renewal energy.

So why all of the recent interest on the part of the Interior Department and Google regarding geothermal? I think there are three reasons. One, as the Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Friedman has so eloquently articulated in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need A Green Revolution–And How It Can Renew America, we are about to reach a moment of truth in terms of the impact of global warming on the environment. Geothermal energy serves as one elixir to this as it represents one the cleanest, most reliable and least intrusive forms of renewable energy. It has a lower carbon footprint than solar and wind energy, producing almost no greenhouse emissions.

Secondly, it is abundant and limitless in its supply. In fact, estimates suggest that geothermal offers 50,000 times more energy contained in the first six miles of the earth’s crust than all of the worlds oil and gas. The energy company Chevron recognized the vast potential of this ground based resource a number of years ago and now has the distinction of being the world’s largest producer of geothermal energy.

Thirdly, amid massive job losses, geothermal is among several green industries that are actually producing jobs. Check out the career listings at a number of geothermal energy companies and you’ll actually find an abundance of opportunities in this emerging field. Could this be the beginnings of an economic boost centered around “green jobs?” Honestly, I’d rather put my bets here than with the dying automakers in Detroit.

Of course the geothermal naysayers of the world would likely ding me on a several different accounts. Yes, there are massive upfront costs to extract this form of energy; Yes, that while the most geologically viable places to extract geothermal energy are in the west, many western cities and towns are geographically spread out, making it an expensive proposition to ensure energy access; And of course, new geothermal grids often require the development of roads, pipelines, and transmission plants, likely necessitating major infrastructure investments from our financially strapped federal, state and local governments.

Not happening, some would smirk. But I personally remain optimistic regarding this recent geothermal push to create clean energy and a source of new jobs. As Gregory Berns notes in his book Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How To Think Differently, the most creative and innovative ideas come from individuals (and organizations) who do what others say can’t be done.

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The genesis of this blog comes courtesy of the horrendous traffic jam I got caught in this past weekend on my way home from San Francisco. At 6:30 p.m. on Sunday I was headed north on Highway 101, a main route to the Bay Bridge from the infamous Silicon Valley area, when the gridlock began at around the I-280 interchange. Tightly nestled in my fuel efficient Scion XD, I plodded along at a snails pace amid a sea of drivers seemingly content with the fate they had been dealt. Resigned to the fact that pounding the dashboard with my fist would do little good in terms of quickening the traffic pace, I resorted to jotting down my frustrations on an old napkin from Peets Coffee.

Here is what I concluded: Our dependency on automobiles in the U.S. has reach a level that is beyond unacceptable. And admittedly I am one of Northern California’s worst culprits, having driven nearly 30,000 miles this year alone. But before you cast your vote chastising me as America’s greatest hypocrite, please hear me out.

The biggest problem that many of us face in terms of getting to and from our desired destinations are a lack of efficient transportation options. By way of example, I drive nearly forty miles one-way to work each day; largely because taking the rail system would leave me with about a two hour trek.

So for our gas dependent society, burn baby burn (oil that is) continues to be the order of the day. And I happen to believe that declining fuel prices will ultimately have little effect on auto usage until alternatives and incentives are available to commuters.

I make this argument in the face of evidence that may suggest the contrary. According to a Harris Interactive Survey done in conjunction with the traffic data supplier Inrix, U.S. drivers are driving less in the face of rising fuel costs. Consistent with this are statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation which suggests that American’s drove 5.6 percent less, or 15 billion miles fewer, in August 2008 than in August 2007. This according to USDT represents the largest single-month decline in vehicle miles traveled in the history of this information being collected.

Unfortunately there is also evidence to suggest that Americans are growing wearing of the options available to them in their attempt to become more cost conscious and environmentally responsible. With public funds dwindling, many local and regional transportation agencies have been unable to ensure a sufficient supply of buses, light-rail trains and other alternative means of transportation to meet the burgeoning demand. Here in the Sacramento Capital region for example stories abound of commuters packed like sardines on buses and trains during peak rush hours.

Back to that gridlocked traffic I sat in last Sunday in San Francisco, what kept going through my mind is that in light of our nations dependency on oil, McCain and Palin may be on cue with their “drill baby drill” argument. Or should it have been “burn baby burn.” Only time will tell what the eventual verdict is.