Moonshot Version 2.0

Name one technology that has more or less remained the same for over 100 years.

I’ll give you two: electricity and automotive transportation. I feel it’s time we as a nation take the lead on reimagining both.

The traditional way of producing electricity is to dig or drill some finite resource out of the earth, process it, transport it across the continent, then burn it. To keep the turbines spinning, we have to keep burning fuel, generally coal or natural gas.

Without taking into account the carbon emissions or pollution issues associated with this method of electricity generation, the process requires a constant input of consumables. All of which cost money.

What if we instead put our technological prowess toward generating electricity in ways that do not require constant inputs of expensive consumables? What if we, say, used moving air or water to spin turbines? What if we could capture even a fraction of the solar energy that falls on the earth every day and convert it to electricity?

We can. And we are. Just not as much as we could or should be. Today only about 17 percent of the nation’s electricity production comes from renewable sources. For comparison, 30 percent of the European Union’s electricity comes from renewables.

So much for being the world leader.

Why aren’t we doing more to create a sustainable, mostly renewably-generated electric system in this country? Without consumables, generating the power has got to be cheaper. And as far as the cost of initial installation: one, it will come down as scale rises; and two, what does it cost to continually locate, drill, mine, transport, and build or maintain the facilities that burn coal and natural gas? In the long run, I’m betting the cost disparity favors renewables purely on merit of economic efficiency.

But I hear the naysayers already. “Oh, we can’t do that. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t shine at night.”

So let’s solve the storage issue. Let’s invent a better battery or engineer some other way to store the excess power that’s generated when the sun does shine. It’s not like we lack the technology. It’s not like we lack the brilliant minds capable of smashing through whatever engineering issues stand in our way. What we lack is the political will and the popular demand.

Thing is, you and I both have the power to change that.

Now on to transportation. Since the late 19th century, we’ve powered our automobiles with gasoline and diesel. For transportation Version 2.0, let’s use that renewable electric grid to power our transportation system thereby ending our need to purchase consumables from overseas countries, many of whom apparently enjoy harboring or funding terrorist organizations.

Seriously, who wouldn’t enjoy telling OPEC to take its dirty oil and…well, you know…leave it in the ground.

But there’ll be the naysayers again with, “Oh, but we can’t do that. Nobody makes an electric SUV big enough for me to haul my two kids to soccer practice.”

Actually, Tesla does. And has for a while. Its Model X has 7 passenger seating and will go nearly 300 miles on a charge. When was the last time you drove 300 miles in one sitting? And it goes zero to 60 in 2.8 seconds so you can get the kids to practice really, really fast. 
2019 Tesla Model X. Image source
The problem here (ok, actually there are several) is that a base Model X is $82,000. But, just like with the initial cost of things like solar systems, that’s only because we don’t have the economy of scale for electric vehicles yet. Same holds true for perfecting the technology.

But we can change that.

If Henry Ford wanted to simply improve transportation, he’d have tried to breed a better horse. Instead, he reimagined the future altogether.

In light of a changing climate, increasing utility costs, and a growing population, I’d say it’s high time to completely reimagine our future.

And that “future” is probably much closer than you think. At the start of the 20th century, a lot of naysayers said there was no way we could develop the technology for powered flight. Then in 1903 the Wright Brothers proved them wrong. 

Image source
Just over a decade later, US pilot-soldiers were dogfighting airplanes in the first world war while the first US commercial aircraft took flight from Florida. A mere 59 years after the Brothers’ first flight, a charismatic president rallied the nation behind a unified dream of putting a man on the moon. And in 1969, only 66 years after inventing powered flight, we achieved our moonshot.
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We’ve been driving gasoline powered vehicles and creating electricity with carbon-fueled fire for nearly a century and a half. It’s time to upgrade. It’s time for Version 2.0.

It’s time for a new moonshot.

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.

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