Friday, June 24, 2011

Idealism doesn't drive sustainable energy development

Northern Iowa Wind Farm - (Going Green In Orange)
A recent article on Renewable Energy World asks the question how did the US grow an energy consciousness.  I can't say that I agree with the implicit assumption the title makes.  I don't think most Americans really think about energy all that much or how important our current existence is on inexpensive, readily available, easily stored energy.  The United States is blessed (or cursed) with abundant natural resources.  This has clouded our collective long term thinking with respect to energy.  We are able to look at availability of energy on a very short term basis because we've had such a consistent supply of all forms of it for so long.  When was the last time anyone pulled into a gas station and found the filling tanks were empty?  How often do blackouts occur on the power grid? When either of these disruptions happen, big challenges ensue but fortunately they haven't occurred that often.  We get the power we want, when we want it, and it doesn't really cost us that much.

Compare this to energy situation of other countries around the world.  Island nations typically have very limited energy options. Their geographic separation from adjacent countries forces them to generate electricity locally and import petroleum via tanker ship--very costly and risky for their national security.  Japan, the world #2 for installed solar, has also resorted to massive reliance on nuclear which is now showing it's flaws in the most catastrophic way possible.  Faced with limited options, people take risks that they otherwise may not have taken.
Island of renewable energy (Michaelis Energy Island)

Germany is another story as well.  As the global leader in renewable energy development with 17% of its electric power capacity coming from renewables, outsiders may think that the Germans have a particularly strong commitment to clean energy.  While environmental reasons are now one of the arguments that Germans make for continuing their current energy policy, national security issues regarding supply of natural gas were the real spark for their dramatic shift towards wind and solar.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian natural gas companies have periodically played games with the supply of natural gas flowing to western Europe.  The spark that woke up the German populace was a disruption of gas during the peak heating season over the winter of 1992-93.  Cold homes in the winter are a strong motivating force for spending more on local energy.

The main message that Americans have heard regarding renewable energy is that it's good for the environment.  This is an idealistic message that has been both polarizing and lacking in teeth to drive tangible action by even those who believe the message.  Many people immediately think Quixotic farce when they hear anything about solar or wind development--overly idealistic and impractical.  Focusing on the environmental component to renewable energy makes this a political discussion where there are perceived good guys and bad guys.  We also get a lot less personal satisfaction from an effort to conserve energy while a neighbor continues to be profligate with his consumption and waste.  Our environmental savings are easily erased by people not of the same mindset.  None of this serves the purpose of a steady state energy system where we all have access to reasonably priced energy without the negative externalities of fossil fuels.

My read on the US energy situation is that we have about 10 years or so to make some dramatic changes in our mix of energy options to avoid disruption issues that other countries have already had.  10 years is a long time in the sense that we could (and probably will) chose to continue procrastinating on making the spending decisions that we need to make.  10 years is a short time in the sense that the capital improvements we need to make could take that much time or longer to actually complete.

The RE World article I reference above makes the case that governmental policy has been the most effective change mechanism in the US.  Maybe so but our current energy mix has very little renewable energy in it other than hydroelectric.  I honestly can't tell what the spark will be to awaken the sleeping giant once again and unite our efforts behind a common cause.  Hopefully, it will be something much less dramatic than Pearl Harbor was.
The worst kind of wake up call
- Let's use our brains people and get ahead of these very foreseeable future energy challenges.

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