It would appear that the lifecycle of alternative fuels has arrived at a new juncture in human history. Just as wind turbines, a symbol of alternative approaches to power production, are appearing along the ridgelines of Central Pennsylvania, they can now be found revitalizing one of their primary points of origin: the Netherlands. In chapter 2, we explored the early years of energy use—when almost all the power available derived from renewable sources. The windmills of early industry in places such as the Netherlands were private or community enterprises. Today’s efforts are most often developed by private companies, but as part of, or with the help of, large government initiatives.
In the Netherlands, for instance, the government has invested more than $80 million to restore some of the 1,040 older mills already in existence. Many of them have been retrofitted to generate electricity instead of to grind grain. In addition, the government has constructed one large-scale wind farm off the coast and has plans for others. Making the Netherlands’ adoption of alternative power easier, of course, is the nation’s small population, size, and, commensurately, footprint. Such changes are more complicated in nations that have allowed themselves to grow more dependent on fossil fuels.
The United States, ground-zero for humans’ high-energy lifestyle in the 20th century, has been slower than the Netherlands and many European nations in creating effective government stimuli for the development of wind power and other alternative energy. One of the most recent developments in our energy transition, though, has been a clear sea change in Americans’ interest in and openness toward deriving their energy from sources other than fossil fuels. Linked to the ethic of modern environmentalism, green power options moved to the mainstream in the 21st century, including incorporation into the economic stimulus initiatives of 2009 that grew from the business potential of these new opportunities. Again, we recall the 2008 speech of Nobel Laureate Al Gore, cited in the Introduction, when he urged his listeners:
What could we do instead for the next 10 years? What should we do during the next 10 years? Some of our greatest accomplishments as a nation have resulted from commitments to reach a goal that fell well beyond the next election: the Marshall
Plan, Social Security, and the interstate highway system. But a political promise to do something 40 years from now is universally ignored because everyone knows that it’s meaningless.
Ten years is about the maximum time that we as a nation can hold a steady aim and hit our target. When President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years, many people doubted we could accomplish that goal. But eight years and two months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon. . . .
On July 16, 1969, the United States of America was finally ready to meet President Kennedy’s challenge of landing Americans on the moon. I will never forget standing beside my father a few miles from the launch site, waiting for the giant Saturn 5 rocket to lift Apollo 11 into the sky. I was a young man, 21 years old, who had graduated from college a month before and was enlisting in the United States Army three weeks later.
I will never forget the inspiration of those minutes. The power and the vibration of the giant rocket’s engines shook my entire body. As I watched the rocket rise, slowly at first and then with great speed, the sound was deafening. We craned our necks to follow its path until we were looking straight up into the air. And then four days later, I watched along with hundreds of millions of others around the world as Neil Armstrong took one small step to the surface of the moon and changed the history of the human race. We must now lift our nation to reach another goal that will change history.
Our entire civilization depends upon us now embarking on a new journey of exploration and discovery. Our success depends on our willingness as a people to undertake this journey and to complete it within 10 years. Once again, we have an opportunity to take a giant leap for humankind. (See Appendix 4)
How does one lead an energy transition forward? Although each candidate for U. S. President has always discussed initiatives in this area, President Jimmy Carter demonstrated the difficulty of the Oval Office’s attempting to lead technological innovation. It appears that the Obama administration has adopted a more integrated approach than that of Carter or any other U. S. President. Such initiatives, though, succeed or fail based on the public reaction to them.
In order to further this transition, we must return to some of the basic roots of Americans’ 20th-century high-energy binge: the culture of consumption. With informed consumption, consumers might play the most critical role in America’s energy future. Since Americans first considered energy conservation to be part of their lifestyle in the 1970s, modern environmentalism has bred an entirely new genre of consumption, referred to as “green consumerism.” In fact, across the board, mass consumption contains a thread of greenness— conservation thought—that runs diametrically opposed to the ethic behind our expansion into the high-energy lifestyle of the mid-20th century. History has taught us that such revisionary shifts in lifestyle do not fare well when presented to Americans from the top down; instead, we now operate in an information era in which well-informed consumers might steer producers toward more sustainable and, often, economical uses of energy.
A one-size-fits-all energy strategy neither can nor should be mandated by the U. S. federal government. However, neither can society wait for a perfect solution to present itself as the path to a new energy future. By waiting for a perfect solution, America will fail to move forward and will ultimately rely on technologies developed in nations that have more actively pursued alternative sources of energy. The successful freeway to America’s energy future will have many lanes representing a variety of energy sources; including even the clean use of the remaining fossil fuels. Each energy source will have its own set of imperfections. Perhaps the only technology that must be pursued is an expanded and modernized smart grid, which benefits all sources of power by helping to more efficiently meet the demands of society. A smart grid will allow the many energy sources to both compete and coordinate with each other. Such a competitive energy economy, including the consideration of the full life cycles of each energy source, holds the most promise for American society. No more fear of dwindling supplies, high prices, and reliance on other nations. The United States should move forward on many fronts to a diversified energy future.
In such an energy market, alternative sources of energy can no longer remain in their current status. As our energy transition proceeds, the most likely outcome is a diverse energy mix built upon the backbone of a modernized, smart electrical grid that draws power from a wide variety of sources, prioritizing those that are sustainable and even renewable, and sends that power along to the consumer. Government must play an even more significant role in regulating and enforcing a fuller accounting of all energy sources, because individuals are too far removed by both geography and generations from observing the negative impacts of using cheap energy. When the entire life cycle of energy sources are priced correctly and Americans are given a more honest choice of various energy sources, the alternatives with which humans began a few centuries ago rise to the top. These sources of power demand innovation and mainstream use.
Let the next phase of our energy transition begin with educated consumers valuing energy in this profoundly new fashion.