High energy prices hit us where it hurts, in the wallet. But across America, people are finding the silver lining in that dark cloud, helping themselves, their neighbors, and their grandchildren reach a sustainable energy future.
At almost 10% of our economy, even a small rise in energy prices can have big consequences. Recent increases in US oil production have not stopped the climb in prices at the pump. You'll find many explanations, but one inescapable contributor is that fossil fuels are scarce, as we burn them roughly a million times faster than nature saved them for us. And growing demand in China, India and elsewhere means we're using those finite resources faster than ever. Even with new gas sources, and even if we drill everywhere, our grandchildren and their grandchildren cannot depend on our current energy system.
In filming the new, three-hour PBS documentary Earth: The Operators' Manual, we saw some of the many ways that Americans are getting started building a better energy future.
Before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln observed "... the wind is an untamed, and unharnessed force... one of the greatest discoveries... will be the taming and harnessing of it." He was surely right, and West Texas ranchers had an easier time surviving the recent drought because the turbines on their ranches do harness the wind, pulling money as well as power out of thin air.
Nearby, Fort Worth is getting natural gas from beneath the city the new old-fashioned way, by fracking the shale. But, the city is generating more of the same gas, this time sustainably, from waste treatment at their water reclamation facility.
Teddy Roosevelt likely would have approved of savings from sludge. He famously told the children of America "... you will reproach us, not for what we have used, but for what we have wasted." And from Baltimore to Kansas to Portland, Americans are padding their pocketbooks and generating jobs by rising to Roosevelt's challenge. Conservation might save more energy than is being generated by gas fracking. And, the knowledge of how to get more good from the energy we use will be with us forever.
Discussions of our energy future often hit the hot button of global warming, where the physics is much easier than the politics. More than 50 years ago, Air Force research on topics including sensors for heat-seeking missiles clarified how energy interacts with CO2 in the air. This understanding works for warming as well as warring, so we have high scientific confidence that our burning of fossil fuels is changing the atmosphere in ways that change the climate, and that burning all of the remaining fossil fuels can cause much larger changes than we have experienced so far.
The Pentagon must deal with this reality. Its most recent Quadrennial Defense Report notes that climate changes matter to people, and we can improve national security by including the solid science in planning for the future. The military also knows better than anyone, from American lives lost and wounds sustained escorting fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dangers of reliance on long fuel lines that are easily attacked. So our armed forces are working vigorously to reduce energy use while developing local and sustainable sources.
Civilians and the military are thus on the same track: learning while we burn makes more sense than burning all the fossil fuels and then looking for help. Moving toward sustainable energy and conservation can improve national security, the economy and the environment. And with Sun, wind, hydro, biofuel, geothermal and more, the sustainable energy provided by nature far exceeds our use now and our likely use in the future.
I have had the good fortune to interact with several high government officials. They've impressed me as dedicated people working hard to do a difficult job. Nor do I doubt the good intentions of those running for office. But while the media often focus on the discord and stalemate around issues such as global warming, I've had the privilege of seeing how more and more of our neighbors, across the country and across the political spectrum, are already rolling up their sleeves and leading many of our "leaders" to a more sustainable energy future. As we show in Earth: The Operators' Manual, these are the people who are energizing America.