Friday, December 23, 2005

Back to bridges

Had an interesting conversation with Cameron last night, and found myself agreeing with him, mostly, about the Knik Arm bridge. (Cameron's worked on the pipeline and various oil-related jobs for several decades.) His point was that a Knik Arm bridge would help open up western Alaska, provide Anchorage with some room to grow, and generally be good for Alaska's economic future. While I'm not altogether convinced that opening up Alaska to development is a good thing, we could agree quite happily that the bridge, if it is to be built, should be done right. (Too often "development" is synonymous with "really crappy, thoughtless development" in practice, particularly in Anchorage--just look at the boobs in the Anchorage assembly.)

The Green Party of Alaska commented on the proposed bridge design in its Sept. 27 press release:
The proposed Knik Arm bridge, even with a price tag of $231 million, is not designed to carry rail traffic nor to accommodate tidal power generation. The needed alternative transportation and clean energy generation would help support the development that the bridge would encourage and make Alaskans less dependent on fossil fuels.

This is a giant problem in Alaska. We simply don't have the infrastructure that others states have, and in this respect, Young and Stevens' attempts to get us a decent chunk of change to get it established is the right thing to do. The problem, however, is that they keep getting us money that gets wasted on poorly planned projects that are not designed with the future in mind. For those of you out there who may be transportation planners, let me clarify that I believe we just can't keep counting on oil being cheap enough to burn. It's way too valuable for other uses.

Which brings me back to Cameron's idea for using the bridge as a power generator. Rather than using the tides or ocean currents to power turbines, as is done in many parts of the world (China, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Scotland) and planned for many others (Canada, England, India, New Zealand, South Africa), one uses water pressure from weight on water-saturated soils (sand, silt, or loess covered with rock). Gravity creates pressure on the soil, and perforated tubes allow the water to escape the soil (replenished by more in the ocean) and well up the tube like a low-pressure fountain. I've done a search on the web and can't find a power generator that uses this method, but I may not be using the right search terms.

I have heard quite a bit about ocean thermal energy conversion, however, because of the Natural Energy Laboratory in Hawaii, which is exploring use of the island's abundant geothermal energy and the temperature differential between cold seawater and warmer seawater.

Alaska is on the Ring of Fire, and could likewise make use of such technologies for energy generation. We should be investing in these kind of projects, and looking at our transportation projects more broadly. Why spend millions of dollars on something that will be outmoded before it's completed? Until we start approaching Alaska's infrastructure needs with a bit of innovative thinking, we simply shouldn't be funding what will end up as albatrosses around our collectively cursed necks.

So I'm hoping that Stevens and Murkowski and Young will pay attention this time to the quality of the projects for which they are trying to get funding. It'll make their arguments stronger.

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