Sunday, August 08, 2004

Kerry Has Moved (a Little)

It seems John Kerry has begun to placate the Left with a series of policy speeches. I very much welcome this, even if my short first analysis below finds them rather hollow.

Kerry first said that he wants to greatly reduce US troop presence in Iraq over the next year. Of course, this is vague, and no firm commitment that could be called upon - and it still seems to be based on the condition that foreign troops can be persuaded to replace US troops.

Then, Kerry outlined his '10-year plan for US energy independence', with some specifics. He calls for a 20% share for alternatives in both electricity generation and transportation fuel by 2020. It is significant that he doesn't just focus on electricity. Then again, he should aim for a higher target - not because 20% would be less than what most European governments aim for by 2020 (it isn't), but because US consumption doesn't stagnate but still grows rapidly: 80% non-alternatives in 2020 could be more than the total in 2003, that is CO2 emissions would still increase.

Kerry named $30 billion as the amount of money allocated for the task. That seems impressive, but is less so if we consider it is to be spent over 10 years. $3 billion a year - that's less than the costs of one month of Iraq war. It would be enough to yearly replace one block of one nuclear power plant with wind turbines.

It looks even less impressive if we consider the sub-sums.

$10 billion goes into the overhaul of coal-fired power plants. Now this is is a tricky sale: this money ain't no support for alternative energies or a move towards energy independence, nor does such a powerplant overhaul significantly reduce CO2 emissions - it is merely a clean air policy. But spending the same amount on replacing coal-fired power plants with say state-financed wind power farms would achieve more in terms of clean air while it would also reduce CO2 emissions and increase energy independence - and would that money be spent on subsidized private investment into alternatives, even more so.

$10 billion is allocated for subsidizing car efficiency research, and tax exemptions are meant to persuase consumers to buy the products. That's a good thing, subsidizing the industry to do some development only works if you change regulations so that a market pressure working towards the same direction is created. However, it still gets the priorities upside down: creating that market pressure would be the more important thing.

Racking up the pressure at the other end - i.e., raising the taxes for fuel-guzzlers (if a politico doesn't want to be explicit, call it "emission-based tax reform"), and removing safety exemptions and tax reductions for pickups. And subsidies for private company research should be focused on specific projects, with grant pay-outs made a function of certain targets, or else companies may handle it as just extra cash.

A further $5 billion also goes into biofuels. What is apparent is that public transport is off the radar. This is the biggest problem, without it, there is no energy independence in the transport field (speak oil). But at least Kerry doesn't try to deceive with the hydrogen mirage. (For those who don't know, the vision of hydrogen-powered cars has three problems: one, it is far from ready; two, its most ready version, using the reformer fuel cell, gets the hydrogen from - fossil fuels; three, if the hydrogen comes from water via electrolysis, three times the current US electricity generating capacity would be needed to supply US cars.)

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