Energy policy is leaving the middle class behind

If you've paid much attention to policy in general, you won't be too surprised by what I'm about to tell you about energy policy. Many of our well-meaning public programs use tax dollars for the near-exclusive benefit of the wealthy—the group of people who need those shared funds the least.

Today I spoke at "What Will Turn Us On in 2030?", a conference about the short-term future of energy in the United States. At the conference, I met Lisa Margonelli, director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. Margonelli has spent the last year researching the effects of high gasoline prices on middle class and working class families. (I'll be posting some more about that project later.) Along the way, she noticed some serious problems with the way we're currently trying to change energy systems in the U.S.—problems that actually endanger our ability to make real, long-term change.

The green policies put in place by the Bush and Obama administrations are not only not aimed at the middle class; they’re benefitting the wealthy at precisely the moment that high gas prices have slammed the lower middle class.

Consider the flashiest green support for consumers at the moment: tax credits for the purchase of electric cars and solar panels. Buy an electric car (more than $40,000) or a solar array (more than $20,000) and get a tax credit. But most American families making the median income (about $50,000) spend more per year on their old used cars and fuel ($7,900) than they do on taxes ($6,000). So a tax credit effectively steers the taxes they do pay toward those in the upper income brackets.

... Green products and technology need government support. We’ve given so much to high-carbon fuels and infrastructure that they have a built-in advantage, but we can’t afford to depend upon them in the future. If we want to give green energy real political legs, policymakers need to be sure that the middle class gets some of the green goodies that can save money: more efficient vehicles, household solar panels or water heaters, energy-efficiency upgrades. In fact, making sure that there's a middle class market for these goods is part of actually building a strong U.S. green industry—in much the way we built markets for cars, for houses after World War II, and even for home appliances. It’s actually a lot easier to build smart policies than it is to build a killer electric car or a scalable biofuel. But for some reason, we’re not doing it.

3 things you need to know about biofuels

Why care about liquid fuel?

There’s a reason we use different forms of energy to do different jobs, and it’s not because we’re all just that fickle.

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What's it take to get off nuclear power?

To get off nuclear power, Germany plans to make its electricity system 80% renewable by 2050. That's not going to be easy. Just to reach the first milestone of that goal—35% renewable capacity by 2020—the country will have to build 2,800 miles of new, high-voltage transmission lines. Although, one significant thing missing from this story: How many miles of transmission lines Germany would have normally built during that time. Even so, watch this space for financing debates, NIMBY wars, and what promises to be some really fascinating problem solving. (Via Michael Noble and thanks to Chris Baker!)

Atlas rockets could carry astronauts to space again

It looks like Boeing will be the main competitor for Space X in the race to see what U.S. company will provide the commercial space flight services that NASA eventually plans to rely on.

Space X has its Dragon capsule, and Boeing is developing a new capsule system, called the CST-100. That capsule would ride into space under the power of an Atlas V rocket, an engineering descendant of the Atlas rockets that carried the first four American astronauts to space half a century ago.

Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon

“It’s still flying?” This is a question I and many of my fellow space enthusiasts have been hearing a lot lately. As the space shuttle program comes to an end, public excitement around space travel seems to be rekindled. Attention sparked up again as people heard that Space Shuttle Atlantis was preparing to launch for the last time, marking the end of the space shuttle program. But for one young person, that interest had never faded, and witnessing the shuttle's final flight became an imperative, a very personal hope and dream. That person was me.Read the rest

Airbus imagines transparent airplane

Airbus' airplane of 2050 is translucent, has "experience zones" instead of old-fashioned classes, and is filled with biomorphic seats that suck the energy from your body and adapt to the shape of your buttocks. [Video Link: Daily Telegraph. Thanks, Jess!]

FaceTime 1910 A.D.

f9c28571820c52ab2a617f755496f8a3_image_document_large_featured_borderless.jpg Spiegel.de has some more futuristic gems from the legendary Hildebrandt chocolates collection previously blogged by Cory. Pictured here are some videophones and a flying car. Technikträume um 1900 [Spiegel. Thanks, Mike!]

Protecting Earth and space from people

Don’t muck around in the affairs of planets that are less technologically advanced than yours. Despite how often it gets ignored, Star Trek‘s Prime Directive is a pretty nice attempt to take a universe brimming with life and figure out how to interact with it in an ethical way.

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