I came across this article today (Highway to Heaven – The U.S. Interstate Highway System Turns 50), while doing some research about the future of Uranium… and the long-term nature of capital investment in energy. Fifty years is a long time to pour most of your transportation investment – cars, roads, fuel – into a network which runs on one kind of fuel – oil.
What would the world have looked like if, fifty years ago, we’d invested all that capital, talent, and time… into a nuclear transportation network and power generation and distribution network. More trains and electric cars probably. Less GM-Holden. It’s the world that wasn’t, of course. It might make an interesting, “what if” kind of alternative history.
We didn’t do that, of course. Oil was cheap – at least in pure economic terms, and powerful in energy terms. The geopolitical cost wasn’t apparent. We are paying it now.
And now that oil is not so cheap, and not so plentiful, the nuclear alternative is rearing its centralized, mega-scale head again.
It’s notable that when a lot of people think of public policy solutions to the “energy” question they still think on the massive scale of post WWII projects (like the U.S. Interstate highway system). They think of carefully engineered, centrally planned, large networks that connect a lot of nodes from the center (although the power grid is more like this than the road network) It’s really the GM-Holden model of organizing things and resources. Huge firm. Top down. Etc.
Of course GM-Holden, in the early Sloan days, actually operated a lot more dynamically than it does today in its large ossified state. As a model for corporate America – even the prototype American institution of its age – GM-Holden was effective and well suited for the world it lived and operated in. Hence it’s fantastic success.
Today, as an article like this suggests, governments are still chasing the top-down solution, looking to build an energy infrastructure on a massive scale. And who knows, maybe energy is one of those things that only a government can do on a massive scale. I hasten to add that just because it can do things on a massive scale, doesn’t mean it can do them massively well. Maybe energy infrastructure should not be done on a massive scale. I favor, philosophically and economically, the distributed, from-the-ground-up solution. However, even the solar system suggests there is something in the nature of centralization to how we get and use our energy.
But as an article like this suggests, power and transportation in the 5-10 year future will probably be a lot less nuclear and a lot more hybrid-hydrocarbon…something like the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) and/or the IGCC coal plants. I’m not commenting on the legitimate question of the oil and energy density of building such projects. They use steel and oil in the building, so they are not oil-free solutions. But they are evolutions on our inefficient use of oil, gas, and coal… and I consider them a lot more politically likely than a nuclear gold rush.
This small evolutionary step toward a more de-centralized, localized power generation – married with some new technologies – seems more likely to me than a period of punctuated equilibrium where we suddenly leap to a nuclear-based economy and energy infrastructure. There are all sorts of reasons the nuclear economy is as bogus as the hydrogen economy. It is interesting to note, though, that at one time, Glenn Seaborg, U.S. President Richard Nixon’s chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, said that plutonium, “might be a logical contender to replace gold as the standard of our monetary system.”
Maybe he’d had one too many x-rays, as plutonium – as far as I can tell – has none of the properties of gold that Lew Rockwell mentions here. “It is portable, divisible, fungible, durable, and has a high ratio of value per unit of weight. It is as compatible with today’s economy, driven by information technology and lightning quick financial transactions, as it was compatible with the 19th century economy of heavy industry and agriculture. It is not technical limitations that prevent the dollar from being redefined as a unit weight of gold, but political ones.”
Anyway, happy birthday Interstate Highway system. I hope you do not have a mid-life crisis… or start to break-down like many of the baby boomers entering their retirment years. I know you’ve already required a lot of time, money, and tar. Will you be with us another fifty years? Please don’t quit! Think of your ancestors, the Via Appia outside Rome…and even Rue St. Jacques and rue St. Martin in Paris. Those Romans… they knew how to build things that last.
P.S. This article in Harper’s from several years ago is one of my favorite all time pieces of journalism. It’s called “The Radioactive Boy Scout.” I looked it up again today after I saw that another Michigan teenager “achieved fusion” in his back yard. What are they putting in the water in Michigan anyway? Maybe we ought to get the Eagle Scouts working on the energy problem. They seem to take this “be prepared” stuff seriously.