As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Old Tech, New Tech, Lower Emissions

We have such an urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that we must explore all options. Some are very forward-thinking, like Democrat Chris Van Hollen and Republican Zach Wamp's proposal for green banks:

Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) wrote a letter to Obama this week urging his support for a national “green bank,” and a fund to help homeowners retrofit their homes for energy efficiency.

They say private sector support for the projects is flagging in the face of falling fuel prices and the evaporation of credit markets.

“The current financial crisis has not only thrown us into recession, it has significantly derailed or killed off virtually every alternative energy project in the pipeline,” the duo wrote in a letter to Obama this week, “making renewable energy yet another victim of the economic fallout.”

The “green bank” has a more formal name, the National Clean Energy Lending Authority. The $10 billion program would be a government organization intended to finance the transformation of the energy sector.

I agree, says the guy with SRI (socially responsible investing) funds that have lost 60% or more!

More seriously, thinking long-term on funding green investment and future innovation in the sector is a brilliant idea. But there are also more immediate solutions that aren't totally intuitive, but would reduce emissions in a big way. Phillip Longman writes about freight rail.

For now, Virginia lacks the resources to build its "steel wheel interstate," but that could change quickly. Thanks to the collapsing economy, a powerful new consensus has developed in Washington behind a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure. The incoming administration is talking of spending as much as $1 trillion to jump-start growth and make up for past neglect, an outlay that Obama himself characterizes as "the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s." We’ll soon be moving earth again like it’s 1959.

By all rights, America’s dilapidated rail lines ought to be a prime candidate for some of that spending. All over the country there are opportunities like the I-81/Crescent Corridor deal, in which relatively modest amounts of capital could unclog massive traffic bottlenecks, revving up the economy while saving energy and lives. Many of these projects have already begun, like Virginia’s, or are sitting on planners’ shelves and could be up and running quickly. And if we’re willing to think bigger and more long term—and we should be—the potential of a twenty-first-century rail system is truly astonishing. In a study recently presented to the National Academy of Engineering, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 85 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation’s highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail. If high-traffic rail lines were also electrified and powered in part by renewable energy sources, that investment would reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emission by 38 percent and oil consumption by 22 percent. By moderating the growing cost of logistics, it would also leave the nation’s economy 13 percent larger by 2030 than it would otherwise be.

Yet despite this astounding potential, virtually no one in Washington is talking about investing any of that $1 trillion in freight rail capacity. Instead, almost all the talk out of the Obama camp and Congress has been about spending for roads and highway bridges, projects made necessary in large measure by America’s overreliance on pavement-smashing, traffic-snarling, fossil-fuel-guzzling trucks for the bulk of its domestic freight transport. This could be an epic mistake.

Again, I agree. The over-reliance on "shovel-ready" projects encourages unsustainable suburban sprawl. The current mania for infrastructure spending offers an opportunity to change that dynamic and use the latest in technology as well as old tech like freight rail.

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