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Bailout blues

Ever since Hank Paulson made his pitch for a $700 billion slush fund to prop up teetering Wall Street financial institutions, the wails from thousands of American advocacy groups have reached an ear-splitting fortissimo.

Most of these groups have spent decades working patiently to influence one or another line item in the Federal budget amounting to a few tens or hundreds of millions of dollars—money for education, environmental protection, public transportation, or health care. Many of these organizations are working to avert what they perceive to be a national calamity of one sort or another.

And now King Henry waltzes in, announces that the bankers have gotten themselves into a bit of a bind as a result of their own greed and stupidity, and insists that each American taxpayer immediately take out a loan for over $2,500 so that he can distribute the funds secretly, with no oversight, to a bunch of financial wizards who typically make several thousand a minute in salaries and bonuses--wizards who introduced us to the wonders of derivatives and adjustable-rate mortgages.

Sounds like a great plan to me. Why would anyone balk? Just think of the futility of spending a few billion of that treasure on things like building bridges or railroads, projects that might actually hire real workers, when we can instead buy up mountains of toxic debt from a bunch of bankrupt hucksters. Now that’s a real investment in our future!

Sorry for the sarcasm. It’s hard to resist. I’ll try to ratchet it down as I explain just what $700 billion means in terms of our nation’s energy infrastructure. America has about 130 million private homes, so that’s about $5,400 per home—not quite enough to put a one-kilowatt photovoltaic system on every roof. I use that as a standard, because that’s what my wife and I have on our own house, and it basically zeros out our electricity bill for the year.

Of course, that wouldn’t be the most practical energy use of the money: not every house is appropriate for solar. So throw in a few hundred wind turbines instead, along with a few billion dollars for research into energy storage technologies. One way or another, the country would be well on its way toward ending its dependence on fossil fuels.

Realistically, another few trillion would be needed to finish the job by rebuilding the grid (which desperately needs it) as well as the transport infrastructure. But most or all of that larger installment would come from industry, given the appropriate incentives and regulatory structures.

Everyone who understands energy, who grasps that oil is in its final days and that other fossil fuels are dribbling away too, who sees the vital necessity of ending carbon emissions given the climate cataclysm we face, or who worries about the ongoing geopolitical turmoil generated by competition for access to increasingly expensive oil and gas, agrees that the energy transition away from fossil fuels is the highest survival priority for our species at this moment in our history. But evidently there are those who see a greater need elsewhere.

Oh well, it’s only money.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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