Friday, May 8, 2009

Energy & Transportation

We’ve learned about the pitfalls of biofuels. The negative effect on agriculture and land practices, for example, 16 billion gallons of corn – based ethanol is the limit because we cannot remove more than that amount of land from food production; thus, the nod to farmers has an inherent limit. We’ve examined the resultant emissions of NOX, how it is not logical to clear a carbon sink to replace it with a low carbon fuel, and the effect of biofuels on food prices, especially in developing countries. We’ve also learned about the secret agenda of hydrogen fuel cells, and how the system works well but getting at it is the tricky part since hydrogen is not a naturally occurring element. And we’ve also discussed the conventional technologies for transportation use and their impact on our environment, health, and more.


Yet what I think needs to be talked about more is moving away from these ‘alternative’ transportation technologies since most of them focus on the personal vehicle. While I do believe that the above-mentioned applications are great for the trucking industry (the largest culprit of emissions), the personal mobility model needs to shift. Technologies are wonderful additions or fixes to our “addictions” as Bush stated, but true benefit comes when people shift their values and change their behavior. So what will it take for people to change their ways? High gas prices? Unattainable new alternatives? A free plug-in hybrid solar electric vehicle? A train stop at their doorstep? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone knows.


About a year ago, Krugman (or was it Friedman) wrote a wonderful op-ed piece in the New York Times about a new initiative to bring thousands of smaller vehicles (like smart cars) to India. Similar to the $100 laptops available children in developing countries, these cars would be cheap, efficient, and attainable to varying socio-economic classes. But as the author pointed out, why would we want  India  to emulate us, to give people personal vehicles? Wouldn’t they benefit more from investments in light rail or other appropriate means of transit? It seems logical, the author pointed out, that if we could learn from the outcomes of the personal vehicle here, those lessons could be applied to countries about to take the leap.


In our own country, we need changes beyond advanced transportation or alternative fuels. In fact, I think advanced transportation should mean a layered approach of bikes, walking routes, buses, hard rails, light rails etc. Perhaps India should take lessons from European countries like Switzerland, instead of the U.S. when it comes to transportation.

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