6.02.2010

No Wasted Energy


As I have noted previously in this space, I was raised to waste nothing. Toothpaste tubes got cut open so you could scrape a week's worth of product out before tossing it, water was collected in a bucket while you were waiting for it to warm up for your shower so it could be used to flush the toilet, and recyclable items were dutifully sorted and recycled. It was never explained why we did these things - although frugality was never far from the surface - we just knew they were the right thing to do and we did them.

These kinds of acts are going to be increasingly important in a world of scarcer natural resources. And yet, for all of our greenery, I still see a lot of waste in my life and in my world. Just to give one example, I wash my dishes with water that has been treated at such great expense that I can drink it, and yet that water goes down my kitchen sink drain instead of being reused on the plants in our front garden, which I have to use brand-new water to water.

A recent OECD conference notes that the role of government in promoting innovation in areas like clean tech may be to use taxes to properly price environmental externalities, thus generating the demand for innovative energy-saving solutions, rather than just generating the supply of them via picking and subsidizing certain industries and techniques over others. As a free-market advocate, I'm all for profit motivating the best solution to a dire problem rather than trusting big government to figure out what that best solution is.

In other words, let governments help get the price right, and then let innovators bring solutions to market. A recent Fast Company article lists six feasible "supertiny power plants" that represent potential energy that I am sure would be more readily converted to real and usable energy if energy prices were correct. Cars driving on roads, people walking on sidewalks, railway tracks absorbing energy from passing trains, sports fans jumping and cheering, the vibration from helicopter rotors, and even the rise and fall of our lungs: all of these energy generators can be harnessed and used on site, instead of importing new energy to those places.

Hard-core urban greenies have figured out how to rig their kitchen sinks to divert that water that I'm wasting to their gardens, never mind that it's illegal in most cities. If the cost of making water safe for us in our homes was more closely associated with the price we pay for it, I'm sure there would be more of that. Just like I'm sure we'd be less lazy about the way our outdoor lighting works - most of the light goes up and out, instead of down, which is where we actually need it - if electricity was properly priced. And just like our driving and living patterns would be more sustainable if gas was priced correctly.

It supposedly takes incredible political will (or perhaps stupidity) to support the proper pricing of natural resources in this day and age. And yet, given how much energy we are still willing to waste, even as we blow hot air about the importance of being "green," I'm willing to support what apparently counts for "stupid" instead of the present stupidity of policymakers who are unwilling to use taxes to get energy prices right and who are instead quite willing to decide for us who the next gen clean tech winners and losers are going to be.

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