Columns / Discourse / November 10, 2010

Voice of Reason: Alternative energy

It is an annual ritual in American politics: a politician gets behind a microphone and rails against American addiction to foreign oil, and then calls for investment in alternative energy, if a Democrat, or domestic drilling, if a Republican. Everyone then gives their applause and drives home to read news reports stating that still more of our oil was imported last year than the year before. Marx once wrote that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. One can only wonder what he’d say about the thirty-somethingth time.

Neither party’s solution has proven effective so far, and barring the coming of the apocalypse, (by that I mean one of our parties developing a bold, independent and politically unpopular solution), neither one is about to be any time soon. What is needed is a fresh look that is willing to realize that a cheap gallon of gas is nothing more than a collective delusion. We are still paying for it, just in more insidious ways. You may not spend that much at your local BP, but then add in your tax dollars that are paying for troop deployments in the Middle East and your charitable donations to mitigate the effects of climate change and suddenly you are not getting such a great deal any longer.

What is to be done? A combination of popular and unpopular strategies would be the most effective in finally kicking the habit. Subsidies for research in new car batteries, solar panels and wind turbines are important, but they cannot be the focal point of an anti-oil strategy. There must be a tax placed on petroleum consumption. The tax revenue can then be redirected to finance alternative energy subsidies and tax breaks. The idea that we all will reduce our energy usage on something so cheap and easily available on our own flies against pretty much every bit of economic research done in the last century. Adding perhaps a dollar to every gallon of gas would be political suicide to the Congress that approved it, but gasoline usage would plummet overnight. If there was a graduated scale that would kick in more every year, there would be a rush to invest in fuel efficiency and alternative fuels because the future market for such products would be virtually guaranteed. Imagine how attractive electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell research would become in a world where gasoline stays at $4 a gallon permanently.

Plug-in cars will have to be a key part, but as it is, they draw off the coal powered and already overstretched grid. Wind turbines are great but they are not going to be enough by themselves, not even with solar power in the mix. Wind power will never provide more than a fifth of this nation’s power supply. It’s simply not possible. Nuclear power is the only technology that is going to be ready to provide all of this new power without exacerbating climate change even further.

That’s the solution. The Right will go into seizures at the very thought of taxing gasoline and the Left have to shove their paranoia about nuclear power and back the largest expansion of it in American history. I once heard the definition of a good compromise is one that leaves no one happy. If that is true, it seems I’ve devised a great compromise.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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