Sunday, February 24, 2008

Money should motivate an energy technology boom

The oil exhibit at the Texas State History museum gives an overview of how oil has changed Texas, particularly from approximately 1900-1950. There are interesting parallels and differences between the Texas oil boom of the early twentieth century and what could be a similarly profound energy technology boom in the U.S. in the early twenty-first century. If our country takes the lead in developing technologies that can rapidly diversify and strengthen the world’s energy portfolio in an environmentally and socially responsible manner, then we can reap the benefits of different type of energy boom for the foreseeable future.

The Texas oil boom was motivated completely by money. As we now know, the abundance of domestic petroleum resulted in many profound benefits (and some detriments) for our country’s society during the twentieth century. However, the people extracting oil from the Texas ground were only interested in stable jobs and/or getting fantastically wealthy; they were not at all motivated by the positive changes they were enabling for society. The oil was plentiful, but difficult to get to, so there was a natural economic incentive to develop technologies to get to more oil to market more efficiently. Private industry innovates best when there is massive economic potential in doing so, and the oil waiting in the ground provided that incentive for the technological innovations of the Texas oil boom.

Conversely, if we are to reap the benefits of an energy technology boom in the upcoming century, it would not be fundamentally motivated by money. Instead, it will be motivated by very serious concerns about environmental problems, security threats, and diminishing energy supplies. However, these good intentions cannot motivate our society (or any society of humans) to the same degree as economic security and/or fantastic wealth. The way this motivation must be created is through the use of government policies to either economically encourage or outright require more sustainable energy systems to be used. With so many competing economic interests, these strong government policies would obviously be difficult to craft; they should be as robust and straightforward as possible. If these policies can be enacted in a responsible manner, then it would open up massive economic opportunity for private industry to develop energy technologies. All of this could result in great successes for our society, but the boom will only be as strong as our government’s energy policies are intelligent.

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