Monday, July 28, 2008


It is encouraging that our reaction to the current energy crisis has reached the stage at which we are beginning to see concrete plans for addressing it systematically, rather than via the grab-bag approach employed in last year's energy bill. The same applies to the related, but not quite parallel problem of climate change. But whether voters ultimately gravitate towards the Pickens Plan or to Mr. Gore's more dramatic goal of eliminating fossil fuels, such approaches are likely to run afoul of the same factors that have hampered the ability of the US conventional energy sector to keep pace with demand. Real progress in this area will require us to confront the collision between our desire for abundant energy and our distaste for the means of providing it.

The current debate over offshore drilling exemplifies many of the same obstacles that renewable energy sources will face, as we attempt to scale them up to a level that can compete with oil, gas and coal. Too many advocates of alternative energy cite our inability to drill our way out of this energy crisis--kicking a dead dog, if there ever was one--without realizing that the sensibility that opposes oil exploration off our coasts or in Alaska is not so different from the one raising lawsuits against the transmission of concentrated solar power from the desert to coastal markets.

Whether we are talking about oil wells, refineries, wind farms, or uranium mines, most Americans would prefer them to be far enough away from us that we can't see, hear or smell them. Until recently, it has been just barely possible to satisfy both our demand for energy and our state of denial about its origins, because the energy sources we have relied on are so concentrated. One mid-sized offshore oil platform contributes as much net energy production as the entire US ethanol program did in 2006. But as we shift toward renewable energy, it will become increasingly difficult to shield our sources of energy from our view. Generating the electricity necessary to displace natural gas from the power sector into transportation, as Mr. Pickens suggests, would require between 90,000 and 200,000 wind turbines, using current technology. In order the make that a reality, the viewscapes of millions more Americans must include either wind turbines or the new transmission lines necessary to bring their output to market.

Breaking this tension between NIMBY and TANSTAAFL--the popular acronym about free lunches that restates the Laws of Thermodynamics--will require a willingness to set clear national priorities and make the compromises necessary to turn them into practical reality. Does our desire to become energy independent, or at least reduce our reliance on unstable oil suppliers and the financial drain that accompanies it, exceed our preference for keeping big, ugly infrastructure out of sight and out of mind? Does our concern about the potential consequences of climate change trump the ability of small, vocal minorities to block essentially any project that doesn't fit their vision? Or has this energy crisis finally become painful enough to force us to grapple pragmatically with the consequences of solving it?

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