The cost of progress

The long-delayed move to more fuel-efficient vehicles seems to be finally taking root. The proliferation of hybrid models including those from General Motors, Ford and Daimler-Chrysler will provide consumers with many choices.

While nickel metal hydride and lithium ion batteries dominate the hybrid market, Peoria-based Firefly Energy, Inc., hopes to capture a share. They are replacing lead in lead acid batteries with a graphite composite to reduce their weight by 50 percent. As battery weight drops and capacity increases, vehicles will travel even farther in the electrical mode. Additional electrical travel will occur if plug-in hybrids gain acceptance, allowing owners to recharge their batteries at night when electrical demand drops.

While the transition to hybrids is occurring, not as much effort has gone into making vehicles lighter and safer. Armory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute suggests switching to new ultra-light materials for vehicle frames and bodies. Such design changes are essential if cars are to reach the projected 92 mpg level.

Lovins also suggests a switch to biofuels, which could displace one-third of the oil still needed after efficiency gains. Federally-mandated increases in ethanol and biodiesel will displace more imported oil. Growth of biofuels is expected to strengthen the farm economy and increase employment.

Biofuels are gaining increased acceptance in Europe as well. France, Germany and Sweden have increased reliance on them to offset oil consumption.

Early advocates envisioned that renewables would provide clean, decentralized energy sources appropriately scaled to meet personal and local energy needs. As renewable energy sources become increasingly industrialized, the intensity of reactions to them will likely increase.

While renewable energy sources gain marketplace acceptance, they meet increased resistance from people with property near facilities such as wind farms and ethanol plants. Complaints highlight the ongoing concern that the profit-maximizing goals of firms simply ignore or run roughshod over other values. A utility in Wisconsin is trying to ameliorate some economic concerns by offering payments to adjacent land owners who see wind generators but do not receive rent for them.

Some concerns cannot be alleviated by payments as they are aesthetic and ecological. A critic lamented that his sense of loss was intensified when he stared at the wind generator, which destroyed his view and envisioned distant consumers surrounded with nonessential electrical gadgetry.

In a sense, he is challenging Lovins’ assumption that efficiency and renewable energy will improve environmental quality while allowing Americans to continue to enjoy the same level of services they now enjoy.

While efficiency and renewable energy sources are important to pursue, as technological innovations, they also impose costs on others and the environment.

Economic and security concerns continue to trump environmental concerns in our society. Such dominance continues to ignore the fact that all three are equally important to the long-term well-being of a society. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report developed by the United Nations documents that the ongoing pursuit of population growth and accelerating resource consumption are taking their toll on the health of the planet.

From the Jan. 18-24, 2006, issue

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