Pick Any Two

It’s a well-worn story about the hard reality of commerce.

There’s a sign in the window of an old main-street appliance repair shop.

Fast. Cheap. Guaranteed.

Pick any two.

This story captures our society’s energy problem in a nutshell. Our problem is we have come to expect our energy to be all three at once; fast, cheap and guaranteed.

How fast do we demand our energy?

Flip a switch. Lights on. Plug in our computing and telecommunications devices. Charged. Drive into a gas station. Swipe the credit card. Pump.

That fast.

Are we conscious of where the electricity comes from, how it was produced, what fuel source was used to generate it? Do we care how difficult it was to extract the crude oil that was refined into auto fuel?

Not likely.

How cheap do we want it?

Real cheap. American energy prices are low, relative to world prices, yet many political careers are still made (and lost) tilting at the windmills of rising gasoline prices. Our national expectation continues to be plentiful, accessible and cheap energy.

Guaranteed?

Absolutely. We never want to be turned away at the pump, never want to deal with daily blackouts or other service interruptions.

I once worked at a technology company that was completely shut down during the rolling blackouts of 2000. Americans won’t tolerate that again. And when push comes to shove, the guarantee of access trumps other concerns, such as source, environmental implications, difficulty for providers.

There’s a hard truth to energy we do our best to keep in the deep recesses of our collective unconscious. It is a difficult and dirty business. Drilling for and extracting oil and natural gas is rough and dirty business. It requires tradeoffs with environmental concerns. Disasters sometimes happen. People get hurt and sometimes die getting our energy to us. The people who work in the energy business know this but we do our best to think about it as infrequently as we are able.

We’re reminded when there are large events, like spills, fires or natural disasters. When these events pass so, unfortunately, does our attention. Because we don’t consciously wrestle with the inherent and necessary tradeoffs of energy, others do it for us. We cannot and, in fact, do not escape the ‘pick any two’ reality just because we wish it.

We must be conscious. We must engage. We must choose or we will have the choice made for us.

Okay, One More Time From the Top

If we have a lot of crude oil supply, why are gasoline prices so high at the pump? In an article titled ‘Abundant crude supply doesn’t push gas prices down,’ the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Nalder goes from Alaska to Oklahoma to walk us through the tortured logic of the wonder that still exists in response to this elementary question.

Crude oil price fluctuations have little effect on short term gasoline prices. Know what has much greater effect? As an economy, America will buy a lot of gas, regardless of price. Our society is structured to virtually guarantee it. Economists call it inelastic demand.

For most normal goods and services, as prices rise, the amount of the good or service will fall. We tend to buy less of relatively expensive stuff. Gasoline, on the other hand, behaves more like goods people are addicted to, like…

Yeah, like cigarettes. Or…

That’s right, illegal drugs. We’re addicted to fossil fuels and no matter the price, we’ll use them, and a lot of them too.

So, let’s get it straight. As long as America, and other industrialized economies, are hooked on oil, prices will go wherever they can, no matter the price of crude, no matter the military or political condition in the Middle East, no matter who’s in the White House.

Got it now?