First step

I’ve been hearing some encouraging housing news. Economic experts are reporting that the devastating housing meltdown the country has been experiencing for some time has just about reached its economic bottom, or is in the process of bottoming out.

It’s about time. Most of these experts are in agreement that the nation, as a whole, will see positive housing growth by the fourth quarter of this year. In fact, they claim, parts of the country have already bottomed out and there are signs of slight housing turnarounds.

So what does that have to do with the underground utilities/pipeline construction and rehabilitation markets? Everything. It’s all about taking those small, first steps. Growth in the housing market means people going back to work and beginning to generate needs related to the construction and rehabilitation markets. That eventually equates into new natural gas connections, which leads to more gas distribution demand which will drive construction of transmission pipelines. It means more sewer laterals, manholes and water distribution lines which push the need for either new or upgrading/repairing existing sewer/water mains. It means renewed broadband and related telecom demand, electricity consumption, etc.

But first we’ve got to start taking those baby steps in the housing market.

A viable alternative

In our nation’s newfound love affair with everything ‘green,’ discussion on alternative fuels is all the rage. Every possible (and some impossible) concept for alternative fuel sources is being bandied about to anybody in Washington who will listen. Proposals range from the ridiculous to the possible. Our new administration and Congress seem committed to blazing an alternative energy path immediately – if not sooner.

All well and good in theory (assuming we can find a practical ‘theory’ or two that actually have merit and a practical future). But a key component of the alternative fuel strategy frequently overlooked is the time it takes to develop and transition to alternative fuels. Even the most optimistic experts admit (when pinned down), that, barring an unforseen, radical scientific breakthrough, developing alternative fuel sources that can handle the majority of our needs in an effective and affordable manner will take 50 years. And that’s a bare minimum.

It’s time to turn Washington’s wild-eyed, exuberance back to reality and practicality. We already have an abundant alternative fuel source right in front of us. Natural gas is a plentiful, easy to produce, economical, efficient fuel with a low carbon footprint.

Natural gas has already experienced tremendous growth over the past 20 years as a power source for factories, plants and homes. Even the traditionally fuel-oil dependent Northeast is beginning to embrace natural gas. No doubt this trend will continue.

But natural gas can mean so much more for our country. While the Boone Pickens Plan is not the cure-all for our alternative fuel needs, it is a good starting point for serious discussion. Converting from gasoline to natural gas vehicles (NGVs) and creating the infrastructure necessary to support NGVs has become a viable strategy.

There are political impediments, namely the powerful coal lobby. Granted, coal remains an abundant energy source in North America. But despite the coal industry’s best effort at spin control, it is still a dirty fuel requiring expensive “scrubbing” technology to meet today’s environmental standards. Most likely, those standards are going to become even more stringent, requiring constant technological development and expensive pollution control measures. It’s getting tougher for coal to compete economically. Plus, the hazards of the coal mining industry have been well-documented.

Natural gas is cheaper to develop, has existing technology substantially in place for easier conversion to NGVs and, with a little incentive, is ready to quickly take quantum leaps into becoming more efficient and convenient for ‘at-the-pump’ availability.

While at some point we will certainly have to develop other energy sources, natural gas provides a bridge fuel that can effectively get us through the next 50 – 100 years in a cost-effective, environmentally-friendly manner.

Natural gas is today’s alternative energy source ready and waiting.

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