Saturday, March 29, 2008


Gas Tax and Road Construction

In several previous posts I have noted the Catch-22 relationship between vehicle fuel taxes and road maintenance/construction. If fuel taxes are lowered to mitigate the high cost of fuel for drivers, road maintenance and construction will have to be curtailed. A case in point is now unfolding in Japan with the expiration of a gasoline tax today, March 31. Already the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport has announced that while continuing funding for road maintenance and certain ongoing projects such as tunnel construction, which are spread out over multiple years, it is curtailing new construction projects. Local governments say that unless their share of the gasoline tax revenues is restored soon, road maintenance and construction projects will be frozen or canceled.

As drivers rejoice that gasoline will be cheaper, the roads they drive on are put in jeopardy at the same time.

So now we have a test case in a developed country, and we should watch it closely. One side in the debate claims that fuel must be cheaper to keep the economy healthy, and the other side claims that the tax is needed to maintain roads. They’re both right. Who will prevail, and how soon?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Thumbs Down to Renewables, But Nukes OK?

Hats off to James Lovelock for his scientific work, especially his Gaia hypothesis. But on what to do about energy, I think he has it backwards. Here he comes at us again saying that renewables are hopeless but that nuclear power is the answer to our energy prayers.

His logic on renewables is that they can’t possibly supply enough energy to keep our current system going, so forget them. He is of course right about the volumetric potential of renewables. Any attempt to prop up the system that fossil fuels built is bound to end in failure because of the low energy density of renewables and because renewables are dependent on the subsidy provided by fossil fuels.

But the same goes for nuclear power. A person of Lovelock’s intellect should be able to see that nuclear power is finished without copious fossil fuel inputs from start to finish — from the mining of uranium ore to the demolition of decommissioned plants and management of waste. (And no one has any idea what to do with the deadly waste.)

Indeed, it’s the big energy boost provided by fossil fuels that enables us to exploit low-density, high-entropy energy sources like wind, solar, and nuclear.

Once fossil fuels are too expensive to use in any appreciable quantities, it’s the same as if we have no fossil fuels at all. With that in mind, here’s what we should be doing

First, power down. Industrial civilization is unsustainable, so the more energy we invest in propping it up, the more we are wasting. It’s a dying system, just like the institution of suburbia. We have to redesign our socioeconomic systems to run on low energy.

Second, go big-time right now with building the infrastructure to use renewable sources. Now is the time to do this, while fossil fuels are still affordable. Instead of building new weapons and fighting more wars, we should be pouring substantial amounts of money into infrastructure and into crash research projects on new kinds of renewable energy.

And third, husband fossil fuel resources because they are vital to maintain the physical infrastructure of renewables.

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