Give us new machines; we'll run them

Posted: Friday, March 18, 2011

We have watched with a sense of numbness and awe as a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions has developed these recent days in Japan.

A 9.0-maagnitude earthquake generated a tsunami of Biblical scale. Atop that calamity, now we are focused on the resulting meltdown of nuclear power generators on a scale greater than at Three Mile Island in 1979.

We watch and wait, send what aid and assistance we can, as we always do in world catastrophes like this. But we also wring our collective hands as the unknown dilemma looms before us -- Why is supplying the energy we need to survive so fraught with potential disaster?

The most coldly pragmatic of us see the risks as necessary byproducts of generating power. And, to a certain extent, that's an understandable point of view. The alternative -- no energy generation -- is unthinkable.

So, we grieve when people are injured or die in disasters in coal mines, on oil rigs, in power plants. We look for where human error or mechanical failure can be corrected. Then we move on.

We need oil, we need natural gas, some of us still need coal. We need them to produce energy and tapping those resources has created an economic infrastructure that we've also come to depend on for our very livelihoods.

We will for a quite a few more years. We know the machines that extract these resources and the machines that turn those resources into useful power.

But we should question whether we've allowed our knowledge to end there. We should be questioning whether or not we can't create something newer and greater -- and, just perhaps, less lethal.

We are powerful enough to create great machines that harness energy sources we are used to now. If there is anything that makes us human beings, it's the ability to create machines and make them do our work.

Do those machines, or the people who become experts at making them work, have to be tied to just the energy sources we're used to now?

The sun, wind and waves are energy sources. Right now they really are out of economic reach. But the reason they are not economical right now may just lie as much in our resolve and commitment.

What we're arguing here is that we are machinists, especially here on the Kenai Peninsula. We're innovators and builders and thinkers and dreamers. Surely at least some of us are capable of stretching the envelope, capable of learning something new, capable of going a different direction.

We're not advocating abandonment of the existing industry. It provides our livelihoods now.

But even the oil industries are redefining themselves into more comprehensive energy seekers, putting new research into solar, wind and wave power.

We should encourage them. Build new, great machines. Create a new industry. We can learn to operate those machines, too.

In short: A machine is just a machine. We decide how it runs and what powers it.

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