Thursday, March 31, 2011


The best moment in the shepherding calendar arrived at about 8.15am this morning. I went out to feed the sheep as usual, a little late because today is not a teaching day. I heard them before I saw them, bleating away.

I couldn't help but laugh out loud in glee.

They were Nellie's. I wasn't expecting them for a couple-three more weeks, but sometimes they come early. These were fairly small lambs, and Nellie is on the skinny side right now. They probably popped out pretty easy, which is good for the mother. They'll catch up in weight soon enough.

Nellie was pretty hungry, and we expect snow tonight, so I grabbed both lambs and mom and put them in the indoor pen by themselves. Nellie got a good feed all to herself, and the lambs have a heat lamp to offset the nasty weather.

So it begins. Who's next? Molly here is lying down, just like Nellie was yesterday.

Molly is not, however, a skinny sheep. She always reminds me of Shirley, the fat one on Shaun the Sheep. She may need a little assistance to give birth.

Energy speech is call-to-action for sustainability experts

I enjoy a good speech, always have. I particularly enjoyed this one. We've waited a long time for Obama to roll out his energy plan.

Unfortunately, without more bipartisanship in Congress, it will be very hard to fund. There's going to have to be a lot of pork mixed in with the greens. That's how I see the ethanol thing, actually, a big fat pork-pie that buys votes and congressmen in corn country.

So much for the patriotic heartland of America. But at this point, I'll take whatever works.

Appendix: Here's a post I wrote to Andy Revkin's NYT blog on this topic this morning:

It was a good speech. I enjoyed it. There are hidden, controlling, realities, though, realities that I'm sure the staff are aware of, but that don't make good soundbites. Any future plan for energy is going to have to navigate these realities like rocks in the water. Most of them are to do with price points in markets for capital goods that consume energy, where energy-efficient and clean energy alternatives are now available.

The biggest is oil price. If I do some econometrics and derive empirical price points for oil over supply, model out demand growth at roughly 2/3rds of global GDP growth, and look to see the impacts on supply, accounting for reserves and even growth in the current rate of discovery, I get a steady increase in the price of oil. This isn't "peak oil" theory: production doesn't need to peak to see the price rise. We just need an increase in demand relative to supply. But this reality will condition markets for substitutes. Lots of currently expensive substitutes will look pretty good in just a few years time if present trends continue. Gas for transport, wind, solar, and fourth generation nukes for electrical power, heat pumps and super-insulation, hybrids and battery electrics that are all just a bit too expensive now will seem a lot cheaper.

So on the basis of price alone we could see a large reduction in imports in the next fifteen years. Global oil production may increase, but we won't be using it because we'll have cheaper alternatives.

On the question of buildings that use 90% less energy, these things are real. We've already built one prototype and are building another this year. They cost more than conventional buildings but don't require lifestyle changes on the part of inhabitants. The trick will be to train up architects and other folks in the building industry. The excess price will then come down, too. I've seen this happen. A prototype 2,000 square foot passive solar house that cost about $800K to develop is now available as a modular home for $250K, with the added incentive of massively reduced utility bills, and greatly increased home comfort. The problem, the rock to navigate, to overcome is price, but there's also education.

Another example is household solar. The price of panels keeps dropping. The price of installation and inverters remains high. Recently I noticed some Chinese grid tie inverters on the market that undercut current market leaders. Rooftop solar is currently cost-competitive with grid power in large scale installations (box stores) in California with subsidy. But it wouldn't take much for it to be cost-competitive in other sunny states soon, in smaller installations a little time after that, and eventually without subsidy. Price, and education, because it takes some knowledge to crunch these numbers.

I could go on but readers have heard much of this before from me. Main point -- Obama has Adam Smith on his side. Grumpy old Adam wins every time.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jobs for the troops

The Huffington Post has a new article out about sustainability managers.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Looking at the world and seeing it whole...

A very readable Observer article today explains how EF Schumacher, author of the very early sustainability book, Small is Beautiful (1973), is extremely influential, perhaps even a "household god" in David Cameron's reformed UK Conservative Party.

I find this all somewhat unlikely, or at least aspirational, but enjoyed the article for it's biographical detail. Schumacher has always been a great influence on me. I have Schumacher's biography on my bookshelf, as well as Small is Beautiful, but I had somehow missed some of the defining moments, such as his time as a German internee in Britain during WW2.

Small is Beautiful was one of the books that began my career in sustainability thinking back in the mid-1980s. At that time, with Margaret Thatcher's attacks on the communitarian north of England quite rampant, I was still in the service, a young NCO aircraft engine fitter on 111 Squadron at RAF Leuchars, and found myself trying to explain things to myself anyway I could. Leuchars is just five miles from the ancient university at St. Andrews, and I was able to get library privileges there. I spent much of my free time in the library trying to get an education, and trying to understand what was happening to my country.

The squadron was worried about new potential deployments at the time, in the wake of the Falklands War. For a generation the air station had played what was essentially a static role with its defenses pointed across the North Sea to the Tupulov "Bear" bomber bases around Archangel. The Falklands War came as a huge shock to the British military, and the squadron's F4 "Phantom" aircraft were, essentially, useless in that far-flung conflict, lacking any kind of useful mobility. In particular, mountains of equipment were needed, to keep the ground systems running that kept the Phantoms running. One third of the main hangar was given over to ground equipment. As a partial response, I was assigned to go through all this ground equipment and make it ready for more rapid deployment, with boxes, packaging, and so on. I was given a small workshop and a crew of one Senior Aircraftman, and left to my own devices.

That was the British government's first and last mistake as far as young RAF Corporal Womersley was concerned.

The mistake was, the workshop had a desk and a reading light. So on my tea breaks and lunch hours, instead of hanging out in the crew room listening to the other airmen talk about beer, soccer and women, I read. I devoured the likes of Shumacher, Gandhi, and the then-fresh faced, then-young Brit environmentalist Jonathan Porritt (now "Sir" Jonathan), sitting right there at my RAF-issue desk in my greasy RAF workshop, and so slowly became a green.

There wasn't much place for a green in Margaret Thatcher's military, and so I left. Within a very few months I found myself at one of the early sustainable communities inspired by Schumacher, the Findhorn community, also in Scotland. Three years later I was in America, and by the end of the decade had embarked on an academic career in sustainability.

What is interesting to me about this most recent article is how the thinking of the west is beginning to converge on a set of solutions to the current set of problems, and how this is beginning to bring together many of the components of my rather far-flung history.

Because as David Cameron is allegedly reading Schumacher, whose arguments against dependency on non-renewable source of energy would have been anathema to Thatcherite conservative thinkers, he's also sending RAF Tornadoes and Typhoons on what is essentially a air-mobility mission to Italy, to attack Colonel Gaddafi's ex-Soviet air force. That was the mission that 111 Squadron couldn't perform, at the time of the Falklands War. And the mission is being performed in pursuit of an new doctrine in international relations, the "duty to protect," particularly on the part of the United Nations Security Council. This doctrine, essentially an argument for liberal intervention, would have also been anathema to Thatcher-era conservatives. But it's the kind of mission that might have convinced me to stay.

A few years after, the guy I had roomed with during my time on 111 Squadron (and my time on the RAF Leuchars Mountain Rescue Team), then a Sergeant, now retired Warrant Officer "Heavy" Whalley, was the senior RAF Mountain Rescue Team Leader at the Lockerbie Air Disaster, courtesy of Colonel Gaddafi.

Back then, Thatcher had committed the British nation to an energy policy dependent on North Sea oil and gas. The fledgling renewables lobby was still a radical group. The idea that sustainable North Sea energy might mean wind turbines was unheard of.

Today, at home, the new British conservatives are committed to a program of new renewables, smart grid, and energy efficiency redevelopment of the UK's aging fossil-fueled infrastructure, including household energy efficiency, electric cars, rooftop solar, North Sea wind, high speed rail, and on and on. This is expected not so much to drive economic growth, which Cameron is also beginning to formally abandon as a measure of economic sense, but to develop "gross national happiness."

He's taken another leaf out of Schumacher -- "man does not live by GDP alone."

So the new leader of the party of Margaret Thatcher, the party whose earlier political economics drove me out of my first career and even out of the country, is now taking up most of the solutions I embraced back in the mid 1980s. Ironic. But natural, if you think about it.

But all of which would be almost impossible to imagine from an American conservative at this point in time.

What a funny world we live in. After half a lifetime of living on the radical fringe, my kind of thinking is now, essentially mainstream conservatism in the UK.

While here in the US, where the penny hasn't yet dropped, I'm still essentially a radical green.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Natural gas has a hidden problem

Various websites and news outlets are jumping on the natural gas bandwagon in the wake of the roiling nuclear crisis in Japan. This is understandable. Whenever there's a crisis pundits, shallow wonks, and journalists like to plump up their statesmanlike creds, looking murkily into the future. Today's NYT article on statements from various pundits, including some of the policy people in conservative think tanks, lauds the potential for natural gas, especially in the US, where fracking has accessed large new reserves. And finally here's a climate friendly fuel that conservatives can love.

I hate to rain on anyone's parade, but...

This is definitely "shallow" wonking: putting forward policy notions without understanding all the downsides.

The really big concern we need to take into account is that natural gas is the primary feedstock for nitrogen fertilizer production, via the Haber-Bosch process. If we expand the use of natural gas for electricity, heat, and transportation, we may well reduce climate emissions, but we will also necessarily reduce the availability of nitrogen fertilizer in decades to come. One of the many failures of market systems is that Adam Smith's invisible hand doesn't sense price signals from several decades in the future. Right now the price of natural gas is conditioned primarily by the price of extraction, and secondarily by the prices of close substitutes like coal, oil (heat oil, since we don't use much liquid fuel for electricity production), and nuclear power.

Accordingly, gas is currently quite cheap. Meanwhile, the US and Canada are the "Saudi Arabia" of grain production. We literally feed the world. But we do it on the back of the Haber-Bosch process, and natural gas is the primary sponsor of all that agricultural fertility.

Other, more natural nitrogen-cycling systems, including crop rotation and manure are available, but most manure comes from grain fed animals in feedlots and CAFOs, while crop rotation necessarily results in a reduction in grain production. Until we can develop a successful food system that doesn't require such massive energy inputs, we are going to need that natural gas very badly indeed. Food prices are already high because of the price of oil inputs. They will get higher yet in years to come if natural gas becomes the primary feedstock for electricity.

For this reason, we're going to have to persevere through this nuclear crisis, and find a way to educate the public about reactor safety. Particularly, we need to teach them about new ideas in atomic energy, the so-called "fourth generation" nuclear systems, involving liquid sodium cooling, or thorium, much safer and even fail-safe formats like the Hyperion, all of which involve cutting edge American technology, and would never give rise to the kind of "core-melt" event that took place at Fukushima, (and Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island).

So, for once, I'm on the side of The Guardian's George Monbiot, who has gone against the grain to blog in favor of nuclear power today, swimming uphill against a torrent of hysterical media nonsense.

Although not quite for the same reasons. Monbiot cites the need for base load, which is also a concern. But I think food security is a greater one.

What I call shallow wonking is endemic in our society, especially when a crisis makes pundits and journalists feel like they need to have answers, stat. But the energy business is complex and doesn't simplify easily.

There are all these tricky details, see, which take years to learn about.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hosking update

An update on Rebecca Hosking, the young farmer featured in A Farm for the Future.

Thanks be to Ed.

Miscanthus? Mis what?

An interesting article on new biofuel crops.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lester Brown on grain prices, oil, and food scarcity

I don't always enjoy Lester Brown because I find he glosses over economic effects in his various prognostications. Although I'm no Julian Simon, I do tend to see a more powerful and very positive invisible hand effect in markets for key commodities that a lot of environmentalists mistakenly identify as hopelessly failing.

But I did agree with most of this assessment.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A family legacy

I flew home to Britain last Tuesday.

The main purpose of my visit was to visit old folks, my mum in her nursing home, and my uncle in Sheffield.

That second trip gave me a chance to revisit the area around Burbage and the Longshaw Estate. Part of the Peak District National Park, but also part of the City of Sheffield, this is an important area for outdoor recreation.

I grew up on the edge of the city. just five miles away, in the Mayfield Valley, the valley of the Porter Brook.

The Burbage and Stanage Moors are the watershed for the Porter Brook.

When I was a kid, but old enough to wander free, I would hike and cycle all over this moorland country. Later, it was a training ground for RAF Mountain Rescue Teams. The teams would stay in a "bothy" behind the Fox House pub, right on the edge of the moor.

My family had a long association with these lands in other ways. My paternal grandfather George William Womersley was part of the movement for public access during the 1930s and took part in the famous Kinder Trespass which took place on Kinder Scout, a few miles to the west, and which secured my rights to roam over these moors. He was the organizer of the Sheffield contingent to the trespass, and a Labour activist. Thanks to my sister's research, I have some of his writings, written for the magazine of the Clarion Ramblers Club, a left-wing group that went on to provide intellectual leadership to the Sheffield area during the period of reconstruction after the war. The free access to moorland country enjoyed today by the British people is owed to activists like him.

The other branch was more conformist. My maternal grandfather Arthur Holden Watson was born in one of the Ivy Cottages, a famous local beauty spot right by the Wire Mill Dam on the Porter Brook, which drains the eastern side of the Burbage moors, and from that base he and his large number of siblings and their offspring survived the World Wars I and II and the Great Depression, providing much manpower for the defense of the realm, including several private soldiers, my grandfather (who served as a private in both wars), various NCOs, a brevet major, and a navigator for an RAF Mosquito squadron. Before, after, and between the wars, my grandfather and great-grandfather were master gardeners for the big Mayfield Valley houses that were then being built by Sheffield's industrial tycoons. In particular my grandfather served the Leigh family, whose head was at one point the Master Cutler of Sheffield.

When Arthur married my grandmother Lettie (Leticia) Jones (a housemaid from Pennal, near Macynlleth, Wales where the Centre for Alternative Technology today resides), his best man was "Uncle" Sid, Sidney Brammar, no blood relation but whom I called Uncle Sid nevertheless, because that's the usage in the Sheffield area.

Sid was also a Clarion Rambler.

The Clarions helped organize the purchase of the Longshaw Estate for recreation and conservation purposes by the City of Sheffield, and Sid became one of the forestry workers on the estate. They planted several hundreds of acres of trees, including the areas pictured. At that time, just before World War II, trees were being planted all around the country to provide pit props for coal mines. The worry was that a German blockade would cut off supply of pit props, and interrupt the coal supply.

So while I was there to visit my uncle, I took a number of good long hikes around the estate, exercising both my legs, and, incidentally, the access rights my people fought so hard for.

The pictures show, from the top, the view from Higger Tor to Carl Wark. Both are prominent gritstone outcrops on Burbage Moor. (A tor in old Celtic is an outcrop of rock.) Carl Wark has a stone wall just visible in the second picture, which seems designed to prevent access from the west, and so this particular tor may have been used as a hill fort at one time or another.

I've often wondered just how likely it is that some of my other relatives fought the Romans from the Carl Wark hill fort. The occupants would have been Celtic and pre-Celtic Bronze and Iron Age people. They retreated to mountain refugia in the west, what is now west Wales, when first the Romans and then the Saxons invaded what is now England. So, if it's true, the most likely line of descent is through my Welsh grandmother.

The chances I share a mitochondrial genome with a former occupant of Carl Wark and the surrounding area two to three thousand years ago are modest but substantial.

Sid's woods are shown in the third picture, framing the eighteenth century packhorse bridge across the brook. The estate foresters planted Scot's pine and larch for the most part, but the trees grew only slowly by Maine standards. These trees are seventy-eighty years old, and none were over twenty-five feet yet. We have seven-year old ash trees that tall on this farm here in Maine.

The reason for the slow growth is visible in the shot below.

The soils on the moorland are peat soils, over millstone grit bedrock. The peat is of course an old forest soil and dates back to the time, when the hill fort was built, when a thick hardwood forest would have stood on this site. With the trees long ago cut down for fuel, the forest soil becomes waterlogged and then preserved as peat.

Peat is acid and that makes it infertile. You can plant trees on peat, but they won't grow well unless you disturb the rocky substrate underneath to release more basic rock to neutralize the acid, and to release other nutrients. But millstone is a sedimentary rock made from layers of sand, and so low in nutrients. Regeneration would have been less and less prolific as years went on. Heavy grazing by sheep would have made sure that the forest never grew back.

In this photograph you can also see the sooty layer from the time of the industrial revolution until air pollution control and the demise of heavy industry in Sheffield and Manchester allowed a more recent clean layer, also visible, to form. The soot would not have helped the trees much, either.

Burbage Edge, in fact, hosted a grindstone quarry, still visible, using the millstone grit to make the grinding wheels that would have been used in the water-powered, coal fired steel-making operations along the Porter Clough.

And so, long story short, Sid's trees grew only slowly. Even so, they have begun to transform the soils, the micro-climate, and thus the ecology of the Burbage valley. I heard woodpeckers and an owl, observed much finer grass species on the edge of the woods, replacing the coarse, acid-loving sedges of the moorland, and saw some natural regeneration occurring here and there within and on the edge of the woods.

There are also remnants of a more natural forest cover on the Longshaw Estate. Up high under parts of Burbage and Stanage Edges are small pockets of an indigenous oak forest, with holly, ash, birch and hawthorne. One day, perhaps, if the grazing pressure is reduced, the remnant woodland will grow to meet with the plantation and the forest will stretch across the valley again.

I'd like to see that.

Like the forest we have here in Maine, in other words. Sid never saw the Maine woods, but he did live and work in Australia for many years after the war (where he and Aunty Kath started a family: his children and grandchildren are Australians), and so he may have recognized late in life the value of the work he was doing earlier: the ecological restoration of the valley of Burbage Brook.

I would often meet him up here on the moors. Almost every weekend he and Kath and the Clarions would be up here hiking around. I'd be up by myself or with the Mountain Rescue and I'd run into Sid and Kath and we'd have a natter.

But that was before I got myself an ecological education, and so I never had the opportunity to talk over these trees with him.

But it's an interesting and a wonderful thing to me how the natural ecology of woodland and moorland is intertwined with the human ecology of family, of rather grand political drama like the World Wars, and with land use of different kinds.

And although Sid and Kath are long dead, I can still visit their trees.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Crash plan to wean UK off oil is energetic irony

The Observer is reporting that the UK Coalition Government (consisting largely of Conservatives with a handful of Liberal-Democrats) is promulgating an emergency plan to "wean Britain off oil."

This is all rather breathless and I wonder just how much the ministers concerned know about how to actually do this.

Here's the lede:

"Ministers will be ordered to adopt urgent measures to wean the country off oil, amid rising concern that the Libya crisis has left the economy exposed to a dramatic rise in fuel prices.

With fears growing that the cost of petrol could hit £2 a litre if instability in the Middle East persists and deepens, every government department will be told this week to comply with a new national "carbon plan" aimed specifically at "getting off the oil hook".

The energy secretary, Chris Huhne, told the Observer that the UK had no option but to speed up efforts to move away from oil. "Getting off the oil hook is made all the more urgent by the crisis in the Middle East. We cannot afford to go on relying on such a volatile source of energy when we can have clean, green and secure energy from low-carbon sources," he said. "The carbon plan is about ensuring that the whole of government is engaged in a joined-up effort to lead us into a low-carbon world."


What do I think of all this?

(Apart from the fact that it's a job creation plan for Sustainable Energy graduates.)

For one thing, Britain doesn't need to, nor can it possibly, reduce oil consumption to zero in a short space of time. Britain is an oil-producing country, and although the North Sea oilfield, shared with Norway, is running down, it hasn't run out. Britain only imports around one quarter of its oil supply.

Britain also heats largely with natural gas from the same oil field.

(Unlike Maine, where we are good deal more exposed. Mainers have been switching away from oil heat to wood and pellet lately, but 70 plus percent of our heat energy comes from #2 heat oil, only about 50% of which comes from domestic US supplies. So if the Brits have a problem, we have a worse one.)

As a result, Britain uses oil primarily for transportation and industrial purposes. And it has a good public transportation infrastructure already. I use the train system whenever I go visit, and it's clean, efficient, and on time. There is scope to add services, and riders, but I shouldn't think it that great.

The bus system, on the other hand, is comparatively weak. It was previously superb, but Margaret Thatcher privatized what had been a massive interlocking system of municipally-owned bus services. The result was a general reduction in buses' availability and quantity and an increase in private car ownership and use. So they could rebuild the bus system.

As for cars and light trucking, British cars and the tiny vans used for delivery are already much smaller and more efficient than American ones, and so there isn't so very much that can be saved in fuel mileage. You couldn't, for instance, save very much oil from switching out of the sub compact gas and diesel cars that are most commonly used, to something like a Toyota Prius or a Honda Civic hybrid. The popular Ford vans used for delivery over there are not sold over here, but they seem to be built on something like a Ford Focus chassis.

So the UK's oil-reduction plan will have to concentrate on buses and on private passenger transport and delivery vehicles that run on electricity. And they can probably succeed with this over time. I wouldn't be surprised if a small mini-box type electrical vehicle, such as the G-Wiz isn't already cost effective, even at the relatively high price, for such a tiny vehicle, of $15K. British gas ("petrol") has been roughly two-and-a-bit times the price of American gas for many years now, and the current price is £1.30/liter, which is £4.95/American gallon, or $8. At this price, and the average mileage of UK passenger cars, which is 27 miles/American gallon, the price of gas per mile is ¢30, which for Americans is 22 mpg at $3.50 or so, or ¢6.5.

While British electricity is about ¢25-30 a KWH.

It takes probably a couple-three dollars to charge the G-Wiz up to a full charge, which would give a range of about 75 miles, thus providing a price per mile of ¢4.

Looking at these figures, it's hard to see why more Brits don't have electrical cars already. I expect it's the problem of range, but we can take care of that now with plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt or the new Prius.

The next problem will be generating all that electricity to run these electrical cars. Britain of course has North Sea wind, which is superbly reliable and plentiful and relatively easy to produce. The North Sea is relatively shallow continental shelf, one reason storms there are so fierce, but it's easy to build turbines on. And the government adopted a very high feed-in tariff for household solar PV a couple years ago, which will take the edge off this likely extra demand if the policy is continued. A good notion would be to provide the charging stations at work as well as at home, so the daytime solar power can be fed into the electric car batteries. One great asset will be that standard household and office power supply in the yUKe is 50-cycle, 230 volts (previously 240) and so charging from an ordinary household receptacle will work twice as fast as it would in the US where 120 volts is the standard.

But adding all these wind farms and rooftop solar power stations would make the most sense if it could be done using British turbines and solar modules. The economic multipliers from making the turbines and panels are probably of the same kind of order of magnitude of the multipliers from owning Danish or American turbines, or Chinese panels, and not having to buy foreign oil. In other words, if you use your own power that's a boost to the economy, but if you make your own power equipment, that's a bigger boost. The UK turbine industry is not yet able to make these turbines, although plans are in place to expand the industry in east coast ports where skilled workers can be found. I'm not sure how large the solar module business is in the UK, but if it's anything like the US one it's been losing ground to China.

So this is a huge opportunity to grow some new industries, not just buy someone else's stuff. But this will take time.

But Britain also has coal. Masses of coal remain underground in the UK. Margaret Thatcher gutted the nationalized coal mines in the 1980s, mostly to break the powerful miners' union. She denationalized the industry and closed dozens of high capacity collieries. She was able to succeed only because of the conversion to North Sea gas for home heat. All those police chasing miners in the background to Billy Elliot? It happened. I was there, living not twenty miles away at the time.

And UK coal production shrank by 90% after that. Let's just say that again:

A cost-effective, sovereign, domestically-produced energy source shrank by 90% because of government policy.

Off with the nose, to spite the face.

Maggie, like Ronnie Reagan over here, thought oil was the energy source of the future. Cowboy economies used oil, not coal, and Maggie wanted soooo badly to be a cowboy. But Reagan just had Jimmy Carter's solar panels taken down from the West Wing's roof. He didn't deliberately destroy an entire domestic energy industry for purely ideological reasons.

(Although there are some that will argue that he did just that to the then-nascent US solar power industry.)

The danger now, of course, will be that Britain decides to run all these electrical cars on coal for the long term. Which will exacerbate climate change. So they shouldn't. But in the short term, that will be where most of the power must come from. Charging power is base load, and being base load will be made by coal until we begin to get wind, solar and nuclear build-out. It will take time to add all those North Sea wind turbines and all that rooftop solar and re-jig the grid to power all those cars. They will need to build some nuclear plants. All of this takes many years to do, probably several decades.

It will be somewhat quicker to shift car purchases from gas to electric and hybrid electric. And it would be better if those too were made in the UK.

So there's no such thing as a "crash plan" to reduce exposure to high foreign oil price. There's a way to begin to reduce exposure by encouraging electrical car sales as older gasoline vehicles wear out and by running them on British made wind, solar and nuclear power. But if this is done in a big hurry, if the cars and turbines and panels are bought from China, a huge opportunity will be lost. Luckily, Britain still has lots of oil and its own coal, so all that is really necessary is to reduce oil demand a little bit each year by phasing in domestically-produced electric vehicles, using coal first, then adding more domestically-produced renewables and nukes and phasing out the coal.

And by adding those bus services.

And if they did all this, wouldn't it be ironic?

A conservative UK government runs back to coal and rebuilds the British bus system.

What we are seeing here is of course the economic impact of all those Thatcher/Reagan policies in the 1980s, when Keynesian central planning was thrown out. But, of course, someone needs to plan the economy at some level, or all of a sudden we will find ourselves staring at shocks like high oil prices. The Milton Friedman idea that we don't need economic planning of any kind, except to maintain money supply, would only be true if the economy was the cartoon version that Friedman-ites believed it was.

But the economy is a whole lot more complex than that.

This is just the first step in economic planning that the Brits will need. Reducing oil inputs to transportation is first. Reducing natural gas inputs to heating is next. because when that North Sea gas begins to run out, you don't want to be going cap in hand to Vladimir, now, do you? Although there will be some shale- and coal-bed gas to find in the UK.

Maine, of course, lacking gas and oil completely, needs to insulate and weatherize and use wind and solar and nuclear-powered electricity for the majority of its home heat and transportation. One day we're going to be very happy we solved all those technical problems for offshore wind. We are also lucky to have such a thick forest, and we can use some of that for heat fuel. But we'd better not be feeding that heat into the shoddy housing stock we have right now or we'll all be in trouble. Demand will skyrocket and forests will fall and we'll put up more turbines and panels than we really need.

And even at $3.50 a gallon, it makes a lot more sense to get your house fixed up than it does to buy heat oil right now. So why wait? Put someone to work, and save money too? Why wouldn't we want to do this?

I sure hope Governor LaPage is not nearly as much of an idealogue as he seems to be, because we really need some economic planning if we're to get the most jobs out of this opportunity.