With $100 a barrel oil more a likelihood in the next 12 months than just a distinct possibility, green engineering and design have taken center stage. At long last, America is going green with a gasoline nozzle pointed at Washington like a gun. If energy remains relatively cheap (to me, a gallon of gasoline at $2.60 is cheap), green engineering will remain on the fringes. But the days of cheap energy are quickly drawing to a close.
The EPA defines green engineering as "the design, commercialization and use of processes and products, which are feasible and economical while minimizing 1) generation of pollution at the source and 2) risk to human health and the environment." The EPA goes on to list nine principles of green engineering. It even has its own green engineering logo which seems logical given the EPA's charge is to protect the environment — more or less — depending on who's in the White House.
Green is all about economics. Wal-Mart's widely publicized initiative to reduce its packaging by 5 percent in six years is a business in and of itself. Of its 60,000 suppliers, 3,100 have used the Wal-Mart Sustainable Packaging Scorecard and the software for that is $900 plus $75 a user. Plus, workshops costing up to $1,000 on how to meet Wal-Mart's packaging guidelines have popped up.
Wal-Mart's initiative promises to relieve landfills of tons of trash, take 213,000 trucks off the road and save a projected 323,800 tons of coal and 66.7 million gallons of diesel fuel. I'm suspect of such dramatic projections and wonder how much will be spent trying to figure it out and driving to workshops. It proves that being green is more about money and PR than feeling good about being green. Wal-Mart with all its clout can push most of the work back on its suppliers, anyway.
Americans, myself included, view cheap energy as a good thing and key to a robust growing economy. Cheap energy is also politically popular, but exacts a price: depletion of a vital resource. The notion of cheap energy as politically popular is in lockstep with Vice President Dick Cheney's dubious statement that "deficits don't matter." Well, of course they do and so do oil shortages (deficits matter a lot, according to Alan Greenspan's powerful new book "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World").
Is this my ambivalent way of arguing for $5–$6 a gallon gasoline? I suppose, although I don't relish the thought of $200 fill-ups, a tanked stock market and rising joblessness, all of which could be consequences of expensive fuel. But cheap energy is only cheap if there's little or no cost. Depletion is a cost that someone pays for in the future when that commodity becomes scarce. In those respects, wind and solar strike me as cheap even if the start-up costs are high.
It's time to get green even if it takes $5 gasoline to make that happen. Write me at email@example.com.