Today, we go into debt for energy. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
"I sell here, Sir, what all
the world desires to have, POWER." Matthew Boulton
spoke those words in the 18th century. He was
talking to Samuel
Johnson's biographer, Boswell. It was a fine double
entendre. Boulton spoke of the new Watt engines he
was building. But he also spoke of their potential
for extending human influence.
The production of man-made energy was leaping to
levels previously unimagined. And the contemporary
poet William Blake wrote, "Energy is pure delight."
We Americans eat 50 billion KW-hours of man-made
energy a day. What was once delight has turned into
a killing habit of compulsive overeating. Our
energy use is also a far costlier habit than we
For example: We pay just over dollar a gallon for
gas. But what does that gas really cost? What about
the cost of ozone emissions? They reduce our crops
by two to six billion dollars each year. You pay
that part of fuel costs at the grocery store and in
your income tax.
We didn't pay the cost of cleaning up the Straits
of Valdez at the gas pumps. Nor do we pay $50
billion in energy subsidies when we fill our cars.
Subsidies alone amount to $200 per year for every
person in America.
The list goes on. We pay 13 to 80 billion dollars a
year for energy-related health care. Respiratory
ailments, mine cave-ins, cancer caused by fuel
products -- they all eat up tax money as well as
lives. Thirteen to eighty billion is a huge range
of uncertainty. But if we paid only the lowest
estimate directly in the cost of fuel, we'd burn
far less of it.
A full accounting would drastically realign the
relative costs of the fuels we use. The balance
among solar, nuclear and fossil fuels would change
utterly. Of course, they all involve hidden
environmental costs. They'd all rise to some
But fossil fuels in particular cost many times what
we pay for them. If we had to pay true prices at
the pumps -- before April 15th -- we might be more
inclined to reduce them. We might be better
motivated to cut the damage that goes with the
The worst of this "buy now, pay later" policy is
that we might be paying far greater interest on the
debt than we'd ever consciously agree to. Carbon
dioxide, ozone, nitrogen products, and sulfur
compounds accumulate faster than we realize. The
interest due on that debt could prove too high to
pay. It could amount to life itself on the planet
we call home.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds