Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Maglev – Energy Independence Faster Than A Speeding Bullet Train?

Came across this article today: Winning the Maglev race

The authors of the article are described thusly:

"James Powell and Gordon Danby are the inventors of superconducting Maglev. They received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Engineering in 2000 for their invention "using superconducting magnets and subsequent work in the field." They are directors of the MAGLEV 2000 of Florida Corp. "

Now I’m certainly not opposed to inventors being proud and optimistic about their invention. And I’m not opposed to companies trying to convince people the future lies with a product they sell. But I am opposed to crappy reasoning that might persuade the gullible into forking over unneeded tax dollars with a smile.

The thrust of Powell and Danby’s article is to persuade us that a “perfect storm” is coming and their invention - superconductive Maglev railroad - can save the day.

“The United States faces a transportation crisis in the next 10 to 20 years - an oncoming perfect storm of declining world oil production, rising fuel prices, increased roadway congestion and accidents, more global warming from vehicle emissions and dirtier air.

“In 20 years, the U.S. Department of Transportation predicts truck ton-miles and auto miles will almost double. U.S. demand for oil, most of which goes for transportation, will also almost double. Most oil experts predict oil production to peak at the same time. The oil prices will rapidly climb as the U.S. and other nations fight over the shrinking amount of oil. The U.S., with only 4 percent of the world's population, currently consumes 25 percent of the oil. As other nations industrialize, particularly China and India, the U.S. will not hold its 25 percent share.”

You get the picture.

This argument is incidentally very persuasive to a lot of smart people. Orson Scott Card, Sci-Fi author, and one of my favorite 9-11 Democrat pundits, writes about this impending crisis regularly. He is totally sold on it. Plenty of other serious policy and science figures are similarly convinced. And, lest any of you doubt my own totally un-qualifiied credentials, I have very little understanding of the specifics that lead them to this conclusion. So take that for what it’s worth.

But I do know a little about free market principles, and I know a bit about the history of predicting these kinds of calamities 20 years out.

I’m recycling some of this stuff from an earlier post of mine regarding some of Orson Scott Card’s comments on impending oil shortage. Since it seems relevant, I think it bears repeating:

“Speaking of foolish optimism ...

There is only a finite amount of oil in the world.

Everybody knows this.

Someday, we'll run out.

It will be gone.”

Well... maybe. See there is this Abiotic Theory of Oil Formation which would tend to refute this. Nontheless, even as little as I know about the merits of that debate, it seems safe to say this is a theory pretty far off the mainstream, so Card's basic thesis stands. We need to plan as if oil is finite.

Now we come to some of the more thought provoking items.

"Optimists tell us that the free market will eventually deal with the problem. Their theory is that as oil gets harder to extract cheaply, the price will go up; then other forms of energy will become economically attractive and we'll switch over to them.

Therefore, they say, government should stay out of the business of trying to limit the use of oil or encourage alternate energy sources.

Here's why their optimism is nothing short of suicidal.

First, there's no guarantee that without intense government-funded research and financial incentives now, the new energy sources will be available in quantities large enough to replace oil when it does run out.

In other words, if we wait until it's an emergency, our economy could easily crash and burn for lack of energy sources sufficient to drive it. "

Two problems I have with the above. The first is the ought-to-be-more-famous wager between the late economist Juilan Simon, and the always-wrong-but-never-discredited doomsayer Paul Erlich. There is no doubt that every commodity that was part of this wager is finite. And Julian Simon had no special knowledge of the unknown. He just knew the way the market worked and the historical trends. His optimism turned out to be realism.

The second problem is with the line, "there's no guarantee that without intense government-funded research and financial incentives now, the new energy sources will be available in quantities large enough to replace oil when it does run out." There's also no guarantee that we'll have this with government intervention. And we can be certain we'll waste a lot of money by removing market discipline from this research.

And what is the thrust of the Powell and Danby article?

“With our colleague, James Jordan, we have proposed a 16,000-mile National Maglev 2000 Network built alongside the interstate highways, an idea of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It would connect metropolitan regions into a seamless web serving 90 percent of the U.S. population, with 70 percent living within 15 miles of a Maglev station, from which travelers could go anywhere in the U.S. in a few hours. The network would be built in 20 years for only $20 billion per year. It would save hundreds of billions of dollars annually, create hundreds of thousands of new manufacturing jobs, and provide a major export industry.”

Why wait for the market to react? Fund a 20 year 4 trillion dollar (estimated only – expect that to be a lowball figure) Maglev system to save us from this certain oil shortfall before our doom falls upon us!

Hey I love the thing conceptually. I went to Disneyland as a kid and thought the future would be full of monorails too. But then I grew up and realized it is important to balance benefits and costs, and the market does that SOOO much better than government, I want to see a heck of a lot more evidence. Especially since our scientific community that has bastardized itself in pursuit of political agendas for thirty years.

For anyone collecting public opinon, count me as a “No” vote on this.


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