Green Energy vs. Terrorism

On September 11, 2001, Wahhabi religious fanatics from Saudi Arabia hijacked four American passenger jets to use as guided missiles against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As part of the American response, U.S. forces invaded a country headed by the only secular ruler in the Arab world, a dictator who had a Christian prime minister.

The subtleties of U.S. foreign policy perplex me at times. Maybe the Bush Administration had good reasons for what they did. Or maybe the birthers have it backwards. Maybe George W. Bush was the closet Moslem extremist, not Obama.

My gut reaction to being attacked by Saudis would be to stop defending Saudi Arabia. If they are so offended by the presence of naked faced female U.S. soldiers, let them defend their own oil wells. We should have pulled out of the area and ended the embargo of Iraq. Give me a cup of coffee and my gut says we should have sold Saddam Hussein some weapons and given him the green light to take over Saudi Arabia. Give me two cups of coffee and my gut says we should have invaded Saudi Arabia ourselves, given the Hejaz back to the Hashemites , and let Janet Reno govern the rest. Any country which flogs women for the crime of being raped deserves a few years of Janet Reno. We could have conscripted feminazi professors from our Ivy League universities to run reeducation camps and killed two birds with one stone…

Hmmm, maybe my gut shouldn’t be running U.S. war policy either.

However, even when I engage my higher brain centers, it still seems to me that we went after the wrong enemy. While the Saudi government appears to cooperate with the U.S. at times, strategically, the Saudi Kingdom is our enemy. They have thwarted prospects for peace in Israel/Palestine. They are funding radical madrassas around the world, training a new generation of anti-freedom terrorists.

It is past time to stop selling them arms, stop defending their waterways, and stop buying their oil.

This is not a trivial undertaking. The West depends on Arabia for cheap oil. Doing without would be expensive. But for the trillions of dollars spent on the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we could have afforded one humdinger of an alternative energy Manhattan Project and have money left over for deficit reduction.

That said, I will not advocate a full on Manhattan Project level of effort here. Our government is too distracted these days to be competent. And unlike the Chinese, our government is dominated by the technologically illiterate – i.e. lawyers. An energy Manhattan Project might lead to something stupid like The Hydrogen Economy or an overly interconnected power grid.

How to Bankrupt the Saudis

The market approach to cutting petroleum dependence is to raise the price. With a higher price for gasoline and diesel, people will buy fuel efficient cars, live closer to work, form carpools, ride bicycles more, etc. You don’t need the government to micromanage the process. You don’t need super high energy efficiency standards. In fact, high standards for new cars by themselves will simply make people hold onto their old cars longer – and bankrupt GM yet again. I would continue having the EPA measure the fuel economy of cars to put on the window stickers to help people shop effectively.

So, I’d first slap a hefty tariff on OPEC oil. In fact, I would do so even if I didn’t hate the House of Saud so much. The principle of fee-for-service governments says that the Arabs and those who buy from them should pay for the Iraq wars we fought to protect Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

But since I do hate the House of Saud, I would also phase in a domestic carbon tax as well so we don’t drain North American reserves of oil, and synthetic fuel feedstocks (natural gas, coal, tar sands) too quickly and end up more dependent on OPEC in the future. Hopefully, this will spur development of some sustainable alternative fuel technology which we can then export and really crush the Saudi’s economic power.

Unlike my libertarian friends, I am cool with throwing government money at some research projects. The federal government does have a record of successful basic research funding. Yes, there is a lot of waste involved, some of it hilarious, but that is the nature of basic research: many failures with high return on few successes. I’m less enthusiastic about government funded pilot projects. Government funding and being economical don’t usually mix. At the very least, such projects must be preceded with the aforementioned taxes, else the government will fund duds like Jimmy Carter’s attempts at funding synthetic fuels or the more recent Solyndra fiasco.

The bigger active role for government, however, is not for developing more efficient cars; it’s getting people to use cars more efficiently. Idling in a traffic jam is a very inefficient use of motor fuels and man hours. And if we were to restore our core cities, fewer people would be doing 30 mile commutes from the outer suburbs in the first place. I intend to have a series each on better traffic flow and restoring the core cities. Stay tuned. Now back to government research:

Solar Power vs. Terrorism

Republicans love to mock the $500 million dollars the government blew on the Solyndra fiasco. And indeed, if economics was the only consideration, subsidizing Solyndra was not only a dangerous foray into croney capitalism, it was stupid as well. But if we look at solar energy subsidies as a national defense expenditure, the Solyndra fiasco looks pretty tame. Look at the billions the Pentagon blows every year on failed weapons systems: the V22 Osprey, the Joint Strike Fighter, the Raptor, and many more. Consider the trillions of dollars blown in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Solar cells won’t reduce our oil dependence directly, of course. Indirectly, they might. Should we come up with a decent lightweight battery, electric cars might replace some of our gasoline powered models. Even if not, if we use solar energy for electricity instead of coal and natural gas, we could save the coal and natural gas to make liquid fuels for our cars.

This is a very long term approach to fighting terrorism. Too long term to be politically interesting.

Solar power has a great deal of potential for fighting world terrorism in the near term – not for bankrupting Saudi Arabia, but for peacefully spreading civilization to the remote areas of the world.

How do we power lights so children in Africa can do their homework? How do we power electric pumps so women don’t have to spend most of their day lugging jerry cans of water? How do we power medical equipment in tribal areas? How to we make sure that every chieftain in Afghanistan in Pakistan has access to enough Baywatch that he becomes desensitized to the concept of free range women?

With electricity comes civilization.

The traditional approach to spreading civilization involved building roads, rail lines, dams and electric power lines. This has often been a disaster. Centralized networks are easy targets for terrorists and insurgents. It takes a strong central government to defend such networks. Where a society is deeply divided on tribal lines, the tribe which gets to run the central government gets to loot the other tribes. War and/or genocide result often. And so we end up spending billions in attempts at nation building which often fail.

Solar energy is the key to spreading civilization without nation building. We could have kept Solyndra afloat by buying their over priced solar cells and giving them away in Afghanistan and elsewhere and saved a ton of money.

Here in the civilized world, solar power is expensive and inconvenient. Grid power is cheaper and available around the clock. Where there is no grid, solar looks pretty good. The inconvenience is minor compared to no electricity at all. Run the pumps and other motors in the day, and have just enough battery power to run some lights and televisions in the evening.

The Solyndra subsidy is defensible as a defense program, not because the subsidy was a good idea. It is defensible because it was less bad than a great deal of our other defense programs. The proper non-crony way to subsidize solar would for the government to do a general purchase of domestically produced solar power panels for use as foreign aid to the more primitive countries of the world. Let the financial markets figure out which technologies to develop. (And by the way, I am working on a new web site devoted to improving the financial markets, so they can do a better job.)

Bad Green Technology

Solar cells make society resistant to terrorism. Alas, this does not hold for all green projects.

Mass transportation can make us less dependent on foreign oil, but it also provides terrorists with a wealth of juicy targets. Great Britain became a surveillance society before we did because they still have a serious railway system.

Turning our electrical grid into a giant smart grid in order to make use of remote wind power is likewise a bad idea. To be robust we should decentralize our grid, cutting the connections between the utilities.

Genetically engineered biofuels scare me. What if we create a superbug for breaking down cellulose which gets into the environment? What if we make a super bug for generating toxic butanol that gets into the environment?

And, alas, nuclear power from thorium also gives me worry. While not a good target for B team terrorists, it seems to me that a rogue government or Bond villain might be able to divert and handle the reprocessed U233 and do evil things with it. I need to talk to some nuclear power experts before I make up my mind on this one.

Hydrogen powered automobiles and infrastructure would create so many terrorist targets it isn’t funny. On the upside, the terrorists might have a hard time getting noticed given the huge number of accidental hydrogen explosions caused by soccer moms. Hydrogen is a bulky and hard to handle fuel, difficult for NASA, ridiculous for passenger cars.

A Five Pronged Attack on Terrorists

Green technology has the potential to fight terrorism in five different ways:

  1. It can cut Saudi Arabia’s evil foreign meddling budget.
  2. It can spread modern liberal values to remote parts of the world without resorting to violent colonialism or nation building.
  3. It can provide a terrorist resistant infrastructure.
  4. It can reduce reduce the need for strong central government in countries where there is no national consensus. Oppressed people are often moved to engage in terrorism.
  5. It can create abundance where there is scarcity, reducing the primal need to fight war in general.

Let’s wind up with that last bullet point. People have been fighting over scarce resources since before the dawn of history. The most fundamental strategy to reduce war in general is to have wealth production outstrip population growth. Now let’s apply this thinking to Palestinian refugee problem.

The Palestianians need a homeland. They deserve adequate compensation for land lost to the Israelis. Either that, or the Israeli Jews need to find another homeland (Cleveland? Detroit?). Fortunately, there is plenty of empty land surrounding the Palestinian refugee areas. Fresh water is what is scarce. Sunlight and salt water are plentiful, however. How about building enough solar desalination plants to create a pleasant homeland for the Palestinians? Yes, this would be expensive, but compare the expense to our ongoing military and foreign aid expenses trying to contain war in this part of the world.

I have not run the numbers, but I suspect that solar power is once again the cheap option.

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