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Jewish World Review March 26, 2001 / 2 Nissan, 5761

James Lileks

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You've been warned -- THOSE of us who grew up in the 70s have an instinctive reaction to talk of energy crisis: shuddering fear and revulsion. Fear of presidents making earnest speeches while they shivverin in a thin sweater. Fear of a national campaign to turn themometers down to meat-locker levels. Fear of lines at the gas station to fill up a pathetic tinny car that looked like someone had pasted wood-grained plastic on a packing crate. Fear of dystopian sci-fi movies featuring bleak, rusty future where people kill for a gallon of unleaded, and dirty-faced children scuttle around in the wreckage of civilization hooting like apes. The narrower the national vistas seemed, the wider our lapels became. It was a horrible, horrible time.

And it's back! Secretary of Energy said that we're in a crunch again, and "The failure to meet this challenge will threaten our nation's economic prosperity, compromise our national security and literally alter the way we live our lives."

You'll hear the usual suspects clamor for the usual solutions. Aside from shutting down the economy and returning to tribal agrarian society, they're simple:

1. Wind power. Yes, it's free. Aside from the cost of erecting vast farms of whirling blades and hooking them to the grid, it's free. Aside from the cost of buying the entire state of North Dakota to build the windmills, it's free. Aside from the cost of the lawsuits filed by Friends of the Geese, PETA, and the North American Man-Duck Love Association, all of whom will be appalled when migrating flocks are turned into a shower of finely diced flesh by the rotating blades, it's free.

It's just not enough. And it's not dependable. If it was capable of generating enough power to be economically useful, power companies would do it. This goes against the old hippie mindset, the belief that power companies are opposed to wind because it's free, maaaan. They can't make a profit off the wind, maaaan. But they could; they could sell the wind-juice at the same price as the stuff that comes from coal or gas. Socially conscious folk would gladly pay a premium for the stuff, once they put the shredded eagles out of their mind.

2. Solar. Poke around the thicket of local building and zoning regulations, and you'll be surprised to find that solar energy is firmly entrenched in the nation's building codes. Nearly every state has laws protecting solar access - regardless of whether anyone's actually using a solar collector. Hawaii forbids you to forbid solar energy collectors in a covenant. New Mexico actually has a Solar Rights Act, which allows people to create "solar easements" to protect their access to the sun. (Number of easements granted annually: in a good year, five.) Wyoming's Solar Rights Act -- enacted, like New Mexico, during the clammy panic of the Carter years -- declares solar access to be a basic property right.

And this doesn't even begin to touch the tax incentives to install solar panels. So the legal infrastructure is in place; why aren't we all basking in pure free photons? Because any useful array is about the size of a drive-in movie theater, that's why. You can cover your roof in solar cells --- and what fun you'll have after six inches of snow, eh?

Everyone who'd buy a solar collector the size of a satellite TV dish, raise your hands. Right. When it's cheap and small, we'll all have it. Not until.

So what to do? Build more conventional plants as soon as possible, so California's economy -- the 6th largest in the world -- has a fighting chance to survive into the middle of the century. And let's build nuclear plants. Lots of them. Enough to shut down every dirty power plant in the nation. It's odd how we're always lectured about the wisdom of Europe --- they have socialized medicine, nice subsidized trains, and high gas taxes. Yet Europhiles never mention the two salient characteristics of the Old World: they smoke enough cigarettes to equal American coal pollution, and France alone has more nuclear plants than varities of cheese.

It's either this or head right back to the Seventies. This week it's a million people without power this week in California; next week it's a Foghat reunion tour, and a fashion show in which men wear scarves around their necks and smoked aviator glasses.

You've been warned.

JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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01/24/01: The new Executive Orders
01/22/01: Hey, Dubya: Wanna save Ashcroft? Teach him to rap!
01/09/01: Bubba gets his last licks
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12/23/00: Memo to Dubya: Wanna show who is boss? Nuke 'em!
12/06/00: The Count of Carthage
At the Sore/Loserman Transition HQ
12/01/00: The Count of Carthage
11/28/00: Clinton knows history isn't written by the victors anymore
11/17/00: Chad's the word
11/08/00: The strangest political night
11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2000, James Lileks