An open letter:
Dear Ms. Clinton,
You lost. Please go away now. You’re making a fool of yourself.
The NASA Approach to Alternate Fuels and How That’s Bad
There are several ways to approach the energy crisis, and I believe we’re going about this the wrong way. I’m a color-blind guy with a degree in history who has worked as a graphic designer for the last couple decades, so I’m not real qualified to talk about engineering. But I’m gonna.
It seems to me that the way to design something (an electric motorcycle, for example) would be to build a couple scale models of the motorcycle, then build three or four prototypes with the full expectation of destroying most of them in testing. You build a full-scale model, then you run it until it fails so you know where the weak point in the design is — might be the new motor, might be the engine mounting, you’ll never know until you try it.
From what I understand from my three minutes of diligent research, this has been the way people have been engineering and designing things for quite some time, and the system works.
Until… Until the United States decided to build a space shuttle, lo those many years ago. Such a big project, such high stakes, but yet did we built prototypes? No… There were NO tests. When we sent the first shuttle up, it was truly the first shuttle, and there were real people in there.
In the 1950s and 60s, when we were in the midst of the Apollo project, we sent up smaller rockets first and watched how they worked. Then we built bigger rockets. Then we put a man in orbit. Then we built yet bigger rockets. The point being that we went one step at a time — we did NOT decide one day to send a man to the moon and immediately start building the finished rocket.
But in the 70s when we decided to scrap the rocket system in favor of the space shuttle, we simply built a shuttle and threw it into the air. No unmanned missions, no shuttles tested to destruction to find the weak point… The result? Through rigorous mathematics, computer modeling, and all the diligence NASA can put towards a project, the shuttle did, indeed work! It worked until the O-rings failed on takeoff one day in the 80s and blew a shuttle to bits, killing the entire crew. This failure probably would have come out in testing, had they tested actual designs to failure. They fixed it and went on with the project, which worked fine until a shuttle disintegrated on reentry over Texas, killing the entire crew.
The shuttle is as safe as they can make it, and does have a good safety record in light of how incredibly complicated the shuttle is and how dangerous space flight is. The problem is that they went about it wrong. They should have built shuttles and tested them to failure. Rather they went through incredible pains to get it perfect the first time, and were under enormous pressure to get it right without testing.
Okay… so what’s my point?
It seems that many engineering projects have been stuck in the “shuttle mode” ever since then.
I saw a show on television yesterday that mentioned putting undersea turbines off the Florida coast. The theory is simple — put some turbines in the gulf coast and let the ocean currents do the work, creating electricity. Why hasn’t this already been done? No one wants to go small-scale with the project… Instead of building a few of these undersea turbines at 1/5th scale and putting them beside the dock and seeing how they work, they’re hoping to develop an entire grid of turbines, anchored to the sea floor 150 miles below (or however deep the ocean is… a hundred miles? Fifteen yards? I dunno, I’m from Iowa), already fully developed and ready to go on the grid. The problem with that is that it’s horribly expensive to build a full-blown system like that from scratch, so no one’s done it yet, even though Florida sucks an inordinate amount of energy from the nation’s resources to run their air conditioners AND they have an unlimited amount of energy sitting just offshore…
Another example is with wind turbines. The big power companies have spent zillions of dollars building huge wind turbines to put in the midwest (where the wind comes sweeping down the plains). They started with commercial-grade turbines. Big honkin’ things. Huge. And they’ve gotten bigger. It’s hard to wrap your head around how huge these turbines are…
Okay, this is fine and dandy. But wind power is still only contributing a small fraction of the nation’s energy.
Here’s an idea. Instead of trying to build a big system of underwater turbines and continuing with the huge corporate wind farms, why not let us individual people have these things?
Release the technology to the public. Give some incentive to a couple companies to start making small wind turbines that a person can put on their house.* Make small undersea turbines that a marina operator (for example) can put in an out-of-the-way place to create some energy for his operation. Get a couple hundred thousand of these out into the public and let US test the technology. Tweak the system as it works on a small scale. Let people tinker with the system. See what happens.
Once people see that underwater generators really do work, you’ll be able to get more investors to buy into your dream of building a big huge system to power the entire state. Don’t try to create an infrastructure out of thin air.
Alternative fuels is too important for us to do it wrong.
*I know, there are companies like PacWind making small wind turbines that can go on someone’s house. The problem is that there aren’t enough of these companies, and the technology is too expensive. Incentives, anyone?
If I Were Magically In Charge of Things Around Here
1. If I were in charge of things here in Sioux City, I’d make it a rule that every new structure built in the city with a flat roof be “greenified.” Regular ol’ tar roofs can get up to 140+ degrees in the summer, which makes it miserably expensive to air-condition the building. Instead, put three or four inches of good soil up there on the roof and plant native prairie grasses. This will decrease the temperature of the roof, make heating and cooling much easier, will aid enormously in water control (let the plants and soil hold the water for a few days after a rain, gradually letting the moisture evaporate rather than depending on storm sewers sending the water straight into the river), will give some ecosystem back to the native birds ‘n bugs, and the plants will help filter some of the pollution out of the air. This costs a little more as you need to make sure your roof can handle the weight, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.
2. I’d make the city engineer go through every existing building with a flat room to see how they can put a garden on the existing roof. You have, oh, six years to retrofit your flat room to accommodate a garden covering, oh, sixty percent of the area of your roof. Extra tax credits if you make your roof entirely green.
3. Sell the city buses. Buy new buses that are environmentally friendly (hybrids or biodiesel at the least). Instead of having, for example, twenty big buses, buy thirty smaller buses and add some new routes. Build secure areas on some of the routes where people can safely leave their bicycles or cars when they get on the bus.
4. Make the downtown area more foot and bicycle friendly and less car friendly. Oddly, the bicycle paths in the city do NOT go to the downtown district, and it’s miserable trying to cross a downtown street on foot. The city is, as we speak, planning to tear out a pedestrian park to build a street, hoping to lure more people downtown by making the area easier to navigate by car. This is backwards to me… Instead, make it easier to park your car and walk.
5. Tax vehicles by mileage. If your car gets 20 miles per gallon you pay more for your car than the guy with a 50 mpg hybrid. If you own a 5 mpg truck, you get taxed quite a bit, but that’s okay as if you own a truck you’re obviously using it for business purposes and are making money with the vehicle so you can afford to pay more. (Here’s something to consider as you’re shooting this one down: Gas prices are rising due to supply and demand. The more gas we demand, the more we pay. Okay, fine… The problem is that if you drive a huge ol’ SUV to work every day, you demand more gas than I do in my little bitty car — which drives MY fuel prices up. In effect, those who use more gas pay the same price per gallon as those who use less, so there’s no penalty for using more gas if you can afford it. This proposed tax would even out the playing field a bit. If you demand more fuel you pay higher taxes.)
6. City bikes. Put some butt-ugly bicycles out there that are free for everyone to use. Make ’em ugly so no one will steal them… Put a small tracker on it so you can tell if someone’s taking a bike home with them at night or is keeping a bike. Keep them by the parking ramps so people can park their cars and ride the bikes through the downtown area.
7. Truck and SUV free zones. If you have a truck or SUV, park it in one of the parking ramps and walk the rest of the way, ride a bike or catch a bus. It’s hard to see around you in traffic, it’s hard to see around you when you’re parked, its hard to see through the fog behind you… You’re free to own whatever vehicle you want, but you’re a menace to public safety. Please consider leaving your guzzler in the parking ramp where it won’t bother anyone and walk the last two blocks to the bank.
8. The energy company shall NOT have a monopoly. If I want to make my own energy, the government shall reward me for doing so, and the energy company can NOT punish me for that. Currently it’s actually illegal around here to have your own wind turbine. The power company has actually made a farmer take his turbine down, forcing him to buy electricity from them. Now I want to know just where in the Constitution it guarantees a corporation a profit… If the power companies find themselves obsolete in a few years, that’s THEIR problem. They’re the ones who should be making personal turbines and selling them to us, NOT trying to stop the technology.
I fully realize that there are holes in each and every one of these proposals. I haven’t thought ANY of them through to their logical conclusion. My point is that we need to start thinking this way…