Green Public Works

Only an extreme libertarian would claim there is no role for government. In the face of population growth, aging infrastructure, and myriad new, cleaner and more sustainable ways to deliver energy, water and transportation resources, there is much to be done by the public sector. Green public works will create wealth and resource abundance. Green public works must include massive new infrastructures and determining what these will be is a qualitatively focused and very subjective exercise – despite the advances of science. In California, the self-proclaimed greenest state in the USA, what are these green infrastructure investments we should make?

BUILD DESALINATION PLANTS – Upgrade California’s existing coastal power facilities to also include desalination capability. This would allow desalination plants to be more easily built since their construction would merely involve extending existing facilities. Currently about 6.0 cubic kilometers of water from northern rivers are transferred into the Los Angeles Basin each year. It would only cost $30 billion to build desalination plants to completely replace 6.0 cubic kilometers of water – $634 per acre foot – and because water would no longer have to be pumped over the Tehachapi mountains, zero net energy would be consumed. If the brine is piped several miles offshore before release, the powerful California current will ensure it is dispersed adequately. Investing in massive desalination plants will free up water for farmers and Northern Californian ecosystems, and provide a decisive and cost-effective hedge against drought. Ref. California Water System, Desalination Cost, Affordable Desalination, Sverdrups vs. Brine.


INCREASE ELECTRICITY PRODUCTION – California needs to average about 50 gigawatts of output 24 hours per day if California’s commuters are going to turn electric. Currently California generates about 50 gigawatts during peak, and about half that at night. Extended range electric cars store at least 10 kWh onboard, all-electric cars store up to 50 kWh onboard. Whenever they are parked, these cars will all be micro-utilities for their owners. Load balancing with electric vehicles may provide a significant portion of load balancing necessary to make feasible large scale development of intermittant renewable power sources such as wind and solar. Along with utility scale wind and solar power plants, California should consider enhanced geothermal power, next generation nuclear power, and additional natural gas power plants. Investing in new power stations will facilitate the electrification of California’s vehicle fleet, and virtually eliminate California’s dependence on imported oil. Ref. Gigawatt-Hours per EV Commuters, Optisolar’s Thin Film, Utility Electric Storage, Bright Source’s Power Tower.

IMPROVE ELECTRICAL TRANSMISSION – Direct current lines, that have ultra-modern relays but overall cost much less, can be installed in underground conduits. High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) power lines should cross California and extend onto a super-grid spanning all of North America, to allow highly efficient electricity transmission in great volumes over large distances. Upgrading to a bigger, more efficient power grid using HVDC also creates more capacity to harvest large surges of electricity generation. Wind hits the turbines on the west coast, and the cost of coal fired energy in Pennsylvania drops. Ref. The Electric Age, TREK’s HVDC Transmission, Mediterranean Solar.

BUILD MORE ROADS AND FREEWAYS – Along with increasing the supply of energy and water, California’s public works need to include better transportation conduits – and in this context the war on the car is incredibly short-sighted. The car, the most liberating personal transportation system ever conceived, is within a tantalizingly few years of becoming completely green. Cars will be totally recyclable, ultra-safe, non-toxic, smart, use clean and sustainable fuel, and have no ecological “footprint” whatsoever. Instead of making war on the car, we must simply make room for it. Wider boulevards, wider freeways, more parking structures. Instead of adding trolley tracks, create more lanes for vehicular traffic. The idea that mass transit – except perhaps in the case of high-speed rail – can’t be fulfilled on roads is ridiculous. Many practical schemes already exist, such as busses and taxis, or are emerging, such as share-cars and autopilot, that will allow abundant, unclogged roads to deliver mass transit more comprehensive than ever before. The tragedy is that by developing light rail and maintaining roads, neither is done well. Roads are far more versatile than light rail, and we need to rebuild and expand all of them.

The mentality in Sacramento, to continue using California as an example, is to prioritize conservation. The conventional wisdom is that we are on the brink of experiencing catastrophic scarcity in all areas, food, energy, water and land. Clearly it is important to legislate reasonable upgrades to energy and water efficiency standards for buildings, as well as encourage more efficient vehicles. But the notion that we are running out of energy, water and land, particularly in California, is ridiculous. What we are running out of is a balanced discussion of these issues. It is easy for policymakers, hiding behind the proclamations of extremist environmentalists, to pretend there are only hard choices – it allows prices to stay high, which enriches the public sector without requiring they make any new investments.

It is ultimately up to California’s voters – do they want to live in a state where energy, water and land are rationed, so higher consumer prices for these necessities translate into massive hidden taxes, or will they finally demand the public sector start doing its job, investing in infrastructure instead of benefits taxpayers don’t get, and extreme environmentalists get out of the way? Green public works, to supply more transportation, water and power, would create more good jobs, and having these amenities would enable leapfrog levels of economic growth.


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