Meeting our explosive energy requirements while ratcheting down toxic greenhouse gases is a transcendent economic, intellectual, scientific and political task.
And while climate deniers are everywhere, scientific evidence for climate change is massive, growing and multithreaded.
The dual challenge is also a cardinal geopolitical driver: the United States wants to be independent of the repellent players who wish to hobble us through our fossil fuel dependence. Finally, the U.S.'s efforts to convince China, India and the balance of the developing world to go green depends hugely on our own practices.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr., who is himself an oil and gas man, proclaimed during the first days of his campaign that he wanted to position Tulsa as the "Alternative Energy Capital," presumably of this Country and maybe of the world.
This is a grand and exciting aspiration. It's an admirable goal -- one that's consistent with the intellectual, business and entrepreneurial heritage that it's really at the center of what Tulsa has been about for more than a century.
The questions: how do we get this done? And what are the means, the machinery, the strategies, the private/public collaborations, and the public engagement efforts that can get us to this lofty destination?
The alternative energy landscape is pretty rocky at the moment. Scholar David Victor and investor/entrepreneur Kassia Yanosek paint a pretty grim prospect in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, in which they contend that we need radical new energy technologies for a truly sustainable, low-carbon world that will still provide the power we need.
On one hand, nuclear power, which in the eyes of many promised to be a carbon-free bridge to the future has been compromised in the wake of the Japanese reactor catastrophe. People on the political left and on the right are getting skittish about the massive loan subsidies and construction programs that would make nukes a mid-run replacement for conventional fossil fuels.
A second development is what some call a renaissance, even a revolution, in natural gas availability. The big gas parley comes as a consequence of the conflation of hydraulic fracking methods that make previously unavailable natural gas deposits accessible and horizontal drilling, which allows producers to more easily secure gas "sparked" by fracking.
By some estimation, there is now over 100 years worth of natural gas that we could employ for electrical production, for mobile fuels and for home, commercial and institutional heating. Importantly, there is an off the charts controversy about the water requirements and the possibly nasty environmental consequences of using fracking to secure natural gas. There is also an active, intense debate about the prospective mid-run yield of the new gas plays that have excited the energy community.
The Big Prospect
Some cities will be at the epicenter of alternative energy and the locus of companies that will fashion the new industry. Like Detroit with automotive development and production early last century, Silicon Valley in the micro-chip revolution in the late '80s and '90s and San Francisco today in the emerging synthetic biology/genomics breakout, some places with become champions.
The related jobs, high-yield startup companies and the whole ecology of vendors that could spring up in the wake of an alternative energy win for a place like Tulsa.
Can Tulsa again be a cardinal participant in the energy world -- one that will surely feature some wild conflation of heavy natural gas use, advanced biofuels, a repositioned nuclear industry, radical energy storage andbattery systems, and still unseen high yield wind, solar and geothermal systems?
Stage One: Making the City a Stellar Energy User
Part of the road that Mayor Bartlett has chosen makes savvy use of federal funds available today for reworking energy intensive city operations.
This route seeks to make the City of Tulsa a giant model --almost a workshop -- for off-the-shelf sustainability, conservation and service re-engineering.
The City, with the guidance of engineer Brett Fiddler, who heads up the City's new Office of Energy Sustainability, is orchestrating an array of projects to ratchet down energy usage in the Tulsa's many departments, operations and processes. Mr. Fiedler is working with a consulting organization out of Austin called URS: an engineering and resource management company that has done comparable assignments across the country.
URS will be helping Fiedler identify and mathematically model city operations, procedures, processes and tangible initiatives like buying energy efficient vehicles, creating superior building envelopes, optimal water and sewer pumping systems -- items that the Tulsa can use to drop energy use and secure large dollar savings.
And Mr. Fiddler is thinking more broadly, reimagining animal waste at Tulsa Zoo for use as fuel, for example.
Fiedler says that City intent is to work with city department managers, big collateral operations like the airport and trans-departmental groups to target rich opportunities for energy conservation and reshaping efforts that will lower the energy intensity of city operations.
Police work, fire department operations, and the City's giant water, sewer and street operations are very energy intensive. Making City services less energy intensive is a challenging problem and many long-established purchasing, service pricing, equipment selection and supply rules are not really aligned with energy efficiency and conservation dynamics.
The Next Step
The Mayor's Office of Sustainability is engaged in what looks like and is a carefully crafted, aggressive effort to dramatically lower the energy intensity of all city operations.
This is an admirable goal -- one with low hanging employment and maybe some company relocation yields. One of the consultants involved in with the URS group -- Larry Zinn of Tejas Verde Group -- is already talking about securing direct economic benefits by using the City's procurement and purchasing power, requiring out of state firms, seeking sizable energy related contracts, to consider branch offices or doing complete company moves to T-Town.
All of this is great stuff and moves the ball forward for Tulsa taxpayers and has the potential to lower the cost of city services -- lot of them -- but does it get us to "Alternative Energy Capital?"
In next week's issue, I'll talk to a range of folks about this question and speculate on what it might actually take.
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