The copper-wire telephone is in danger, traditional advertising is drying up and health care costs are through the roof and rising. What is the villain? Well, it’s technology; particularly, “disruptive technology.”
Disruptive technologies are devastating to established order. And they underlie Congress’s consideration the most wide-ranging legislative challenges it has faced since the New Deal: health care and energy.
Hugely effective but expensive new medical technologies, like magnetic resonance imaging, nuclear therapies and artificial joints, threaten to bankrupt the nation’s health care system. At the heart of the health care debate lie the escalating costs for these new technologies and how to shoulder and control them. The rudimentary solution is to get the well to pay for the sick, in the way that Social Security seeks to get the young to pay for the old.
After health care, Congress has to consider energy and its leitmotif, climate remediation. Here, too, it is faced with new technology forcing the issue. Even as the Senate contemplates taking up the House-passed bill, with its heavy emphasis on renewables, new drilling and discovery technologies are tipping the energy balance towards natural gas and away from other competitors like wind and nuclear power. Ironically, at one time, nuclear power was a disruptive technology that threatened to elbow out coal.
In electricity, Congress can force the market away from the disruptive technology toward something it favors for social and political reasons, like solar or wave power. The cost is simply passed on to the consumer.
As for transportation, the energy imperatives are dictated by the forces of infrastructure and sunk cost. In the long term, there are four options that will keep the wheels turning:
1.plug-in hybrids leading to full electric-powered vehicles;
2. hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles;
3. ethanol-powered vehicles and;
4. compressed natural gas-powered vehicles
These options are not created equal. Hybrids are here but the batteries are expensive, and the plug-in option dictates that the car sits in a garage or a parking lot that is equipped with plugs for charging. Also, the batteries decline with time and cannot be used after they lose about 30 percent of their design capacity. If you live in a high-rise, plugging in your vehicle is not yet an option. Ditto pure electric vehicles.
Hydrogen is a darling technology of the green community, which marvels that it is emission-free except for water. Trouble is, there is hydrogen aplenty in nature but not free-standing; it has to be extracted from hydrocarbons, like natural gas, or from water, with huge electrical input. Why not use the gas or the electricity directly?
General Motors markets a duel-use vehicle that can run on E85 (85-percent corn-derived ethanol). This fuel was a favorite of President George W. Bush; but the environmental impact of putting so much farmland down to corn for fuel and the effect on corn prices has taken the bloom off ethanol.
Natural gas–which can be used in a modified gasoline engine and has been made more abundant by revolutionary horizontal drilling technology–is advocated by T. Boone Pickens and others. It has come late to the transportation fuel wars because of fears of shortage, now proved groundless. Natural gas is not without emissions, but these are about half of those of gasoline. And it may be the big energy disrupter.
Congress, reluctant to pick winners for fear of also creating losers, intends to throw cash at every option in the hope that the market can make the choice later. But the market is not immaculate–and less so in energy than almost any other commodity. Electricity has to move down a finite number of power lines, and transportation fuels depend on the nation’s 160,000 gas stations for market entry. You can expect the gas station infrastructure to, say, provide replacement batteries, charging points, hydrogen terminals or natural gas compressors. But can you expect it to provide all of these?
Maybe the gas station, rather than being the vital element in the new energy regime, will be rendered obsolete by disruptive new technologies that allow gas compressing and electric charging in home garages and commercial parking lots. Maybe the hybrid of the future will have a compressed-gas engine and plug-in capacity, and all this will be achieved without the traditional gas station. Technology enhances, modifies and improves, but it is hell on established order.
Leon Trotsky said: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Congress ought to know that technology, disruptive technology, is interested in it. –For the Hearst/New York Times syndicate