by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & fter you cruise the strip, on the hunt for the best price on gas, and after you've settled on the least obscene price, slid in your debit card and popped the nozzle into your tank, there's a moment as the gas flows. During that minute or two, it's hard not to reflect on the implications of your seemingly ordinary act, repeated millions of times each day across the United States. In the context of Earth Day this week, you see yourself as part of the problem for pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and, as a majority of scientists say, contributing to global warming.
But if that's just the unavoidable cost of doing business to you (or if you're one of the millions of Americans skeptical about global warming), perhaps you'll consider the pump in the context of the war on terror. In that case, it's easy to see yourself caught in a global whirlpool. When you paid your taxes earlier this week, you pitched in on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, whenever you buy gasoline, you're putting money (lots of money) directly into the pockets of our alleged enemies -- Saudi Arabia (homeland of Al Qaeda) and soon-to-be-nuclear Iran.
Yes, in an odd circumstance of modern globalism, you're helping to fund the two opposing sides in the war on terror. By the time you slide the nozzle back into the pump, $60 (or more) poorer, it's hard not to feel like a dupe.
Going all the way back to the 1970s, we've known energy is a nagging problem. But every time it became too expensive, the Saudis boosted production to cut the price and everybody could go back to normal. Times have changed, and the world's growing demand combined with the weak dollar suggest that prices may never come down.
So here we are today, without any energy plan whatsoever. When asked to comment about the specter of $4-a-gallon gas earlier this year, President Bush doubted it would happen. Of course, $4 is already the price for diesel and has been spotted on gas pumps in California; gas has even topped $3.70 at some pumps in Spokane.
Failing to even attempt to address our precarious energy picture is pure governmental malpractice.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & opefully, it'll be good old American ingenuity to the rescue. Even now, as the federal government sits on its hands, there are plans being hatched to wean us off foreign oil. One of the most promising is coming out of the Cascadia Center in Seattle. That's where Steve Marshall is brainstorming a solution. A lawyer who used to represent Boeing and Puget Power, as a senior Cascadia fellow Marshall has been seeking salvation via four letters: PHEV.
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) are under development throughout the auto industry, and estimates say one could run 500 miles on a gallon of gas -- that's because, unlike hybrids like the Toyota Prius, they run almost entirely on electricity. To recharge the vehicle, you simply plug it into a socket in your garage overnight.
Marshall's vision is to transform America's fleet of automobiles to PHEV technology, and, Marshall wrote in the Seattle Times last year, "Electric utilities could become the gas stations of the future."
The Pacific Northwest, with a high percentage of relatively clean hydropower, would be a great place to demonstrate such a solution, Marshall believes. Overnight, when demand is at its lowest and there is unused power, people's cars could be charging.
But where that electricity comes from matters, and a next step would be to create a much cleaner electrical grid based on a massive public investment in wind power, solar and other non-polluting methods. (The Department of Energy believes there is enough wind and plenty of locations for turbines to meet our nation's current electrical needs.)
Yes, it's a huge project, but even small cuts in our dependence on foreign oil could make a huge difference. And, as they're proving in Europe right now, it can be very good for business. In fact, one of the nation's top venture capitalists, John Doerr, has said that sustainable technologies will become "the mother of all markets."
Germany is a case study in what can be accomplished: Renewable energy generation grew by one-fifth in 2007, while their efforts kept an estimated 110 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the air. Germany has already met the European Union's target of having 12.5 percent of its energy coming from renewables, and estimates have pegged total employment in the renewable energy industry at 400,000 by 2020. (The German auto industry, by comparison, employs about 700,000.)
While we're doing absolutely nothing about our energy security, Germany has given itself a huge lead in what could be the next big global industry. And it didn't happen by waiting for the free market to act -- the German government mandated certain changes and funded it all through the kinds of feed-in tariffs first used in the United States back in the 1970s.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t was 75 years ago this summer, in the depths of the Great Depression, that Spokane's own C.C. Dill, the last U.S. Senator from Eastern Washington, punched a shovel into the desiccated soil to start the Grand Coulee Dam project. It would take another nine years to complete, with gargantuan funding from the federal government, but when the dam started pumping power and water in 1942, it changed the face of the Northwest -- and was a key to victory in World War II, as it powered our war machine.
I know it's odd to invoke a structure that killed salmon runs and drowned entire towns in honor of Earth Day, but it's that collective push for a massive solution I'm after. Woody Guthrie celebrated Grand Coulee Dam as "the biggest thing that man has ever done," and to this day it's an example of the kind of big thinking America was built on -- the kind of big thinking we need to tap somewhere deep inside ourselves as we struggle to break our oil addiction and win these wars on terror and global warming.