Homer Simpson and America's energy problem
Our energy dilemma stirs lots of questions but few solutions. In "Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis," published by Harper in October, Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson look for answers that will sustain the country through shifting economic conditions. Bittle is executive editor of PublicAgenda.org. Johnson is a co-founder of PublicAgenda.com.
GUEST BLOGGERS: Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson
Americans -- both the public and political leaders --- take the same approach to energy that Homer Simpson takes to, well, everything. When prices go up, as they did last year, it's "d'oh!" and all kinds of panicky solutions get put on the table. When prices go down again, it's "woo-hoo!" Time to ditch those resolutions we made.
But the problem with cheap energy is that there's no incentive to look for more. Alternatives like wind and solar aren't competitive when conventional energy is cheap, and companies even invest less in oil and natural gas. Since it takes time to get new options running, whether it's wind farms or oil rigs, the next time prices rise, we could be caught flat-footed all over again -- something that's likely to happen once the world economy picks up again. D'oh!
Here's the challenge: the world needs more energy even as it needs cleaner energy. Climate change gets most of the attention. But even if you don't buy into global warming, demand for energy worldwide is projected to go up 40 percent over the next 20 years. Almost all of that growth will come from China, India and the developing world, as more and more people live a Western lifestyle. If the Chinese begin owning cars at the same rate Americans do, that would put another billion cars on the road. Guess what that means for the price of oil?
There is talk about longer-term solutions. The cap-and-trade plan, for example, is designed to make fossil fuels more expensive and give alternatives a chance to compete. This isn't the only way to go, but at least it's aimed at changing the basic economics over time.
Sad to say, there are no quick, easy, cost-free solutions, but sticking with the status quo is even worse. If we don't reduce our reliance on oil and start looking for more energy from diverse sources, we could end up trying to outbid the Chinese for what's left of the world's fossil fuels. Not to mention what we'll do to the environment in the process.
It's all about making choices, and pretty fundamental choices at that. How will we generate electricity? How will we power our cars? When you look at it like that, the debate becomes much clearer.
For example, there are only a handful of choices for powering cars: we can stick with something liquid like ethanol, or liquid natural gas, or we can move to electric cars. They all have pros and cons, they all require investment. Plus we'll need to switch some 250 million cars that run on gasoline for cars that run on something else--not something you do overnight.
It's callous to ignore what higher energy prices mean for low-income families, and we need to think about how to mitigate that harm. But it's also true that world trends in energy are running against the United States. The only way to avoid the "d'oh" zone in the long run is to get ahead of the problem.
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