Zapping the power paradigm

Mark McLaughlin is lead writer and researcher for the Tahoe/Sacramento-based Alternative Energy Institute,

Two hundred years ago, the world experienced an energy revolution that launched the Industrial Age. Another revolution could be just around the corner.

Cheap energy is the lifeblood of American society; it is essential to our quality of life and has been crucial to the nation’s long economic success. But there is a dangerous dark side to relying on non-renewable resources like coal, oil, natural gas and uranium to heat and cool our homes, fuel our cars and planes and generate electricity.

The supply of these fuels is physically limited, and their use threatens our health and environment. Fears of global warming aside, burning fossil fuel releases chemicals and particulates that cause a multitude of ailments, including cancer, lung, brain and nerve damage and birth defects. Beyond the human impact, the illnesses related to air pollution cost the United States $100 billion a year.

President Bush announced March 13 his decision to reverse a previous pledge to legislate limits on carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants. Not long after that, he withdrew U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol process. Bush’s short-term political decisions cut support for long-term domestic and international efforts to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The administration’s myopic energy policy requires more domestic and offshore drilling to increase production, but it fails to offer much support for proven energy technologies like wind turbines and solar panels. Renewable resources do not contribute to air pollution. Critics charge that alternative energies are not competitive with fossil fuels, but if the social and health costs were included in the market price of gasoline, the cost would rise dramatically.

Energy conservation and increased resource efficiency are logical first steps in the inevitable transition from our polluting hydrocarbon-based economy to a more sustainable one employing renewable energy systems like wind, biomass and solar power. A carbonless energy future necessitates a change in current tax policies that encourage the use of polluting energy, as well as the phase-out of inefficient and dirty technologies. The U.S. should implement new policies that give renewable alternative energy systems a more level playing field with prices that reflect their low environmental impact and procurement initiatives to stimulate growth in the market.

Technological optimism is a tenet of faith in Western science, but there is no coordinated effort to develop the technologies that will power us in the future, a problem that the nonprofit Alternative Energy Institute is trying to solve. Currently, there is no Department of Energy mechanism for the support, evaluation, testing and dissemination of information about new scientific discoveries. Funding and coordinating a large-scale research effort along the lines of a "Manhattan Project" could yield dramatic progress in developing breakthrough energy/propulsion systems. Solutions will require aggressive action and critical choices if we intend to save any of the planet’s natural capital for future generations. The challenges are serious, but not insurmountable.