As a revolution continues to sweep North Africa, the uncertainties brought about by the turmoil are impacting oil prices, which have already passed $100 a barrel in the past few weeks and look poised to pass that mark again. And while it may seem insensitive to look inward while the citizens of those countries struggle for a brighter future, there’s no denying that it’s hard to watch events unfold in the Middle East and not give at least a passing thought to what this might mean for US energy policy.
We haven’t talked much about the security of our energy systems—although one of the biggest benefits of an efficient and distributed generation system is the added security it affords—the events of the last few weeks unfolding on the other side of the globe have served to highlight our dependence on foreign oil. Prices rise and we are all impacted in ways large and small—and not just at the gas pump.
Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, used the opportunity to push that point in a recent statement when he said, “The current political unrest in Egypt and its unstable neighbors strongly reinforces America’s need to reduce our dependence on turbulent regions of the world and produce more energy at home.”
That’s not an altogether unfamiliar battle cry. As far back as 1977, President Jimmy Carter made similar appeal in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo. For many of us, that time was marked by long lines at gas stations all around the country, as real shortages took hold. Believe it or not, despite barely dodging a bullet more than 30 years ago, we are actually even more vulnerable today. In the 1970s, about 30% of our oil supply was imported. Over the last three decades that amount has almost doubled: As of 2009, close to 60% of our oil is imported.
Unfortunately, agitation often produces a froth of opportunism, and some opponents of the President’s energy policy have decided to use the threat of high gas prices as clarion call for greater domestic oil production. While many of us will not soon forget the images of thousands of gallons of crude oil flowing unimpeded into the Gulf of Mexico last summer, others have decided that the only way to ease our fossil fuel woes is to increase offshore drilling.
But to argue for a continued dependence on fossil fuels, one must first discount other possibilities—like renewable energy. Often cast as the pricey, niche cousin of “legitimate” power generation, renewable energy opponents will argue that current and future projections indicate that renewable energy will never be able to meet even a majority of our energy needs. This despite the fact that other nations have been quite successful incorporating wind, solar, hydropower, and biofuel into their national energy supply: In Sweden, 39% of their energy comes from renewable energy sources; in Iceland, 70% the country’s energy demand is supplied by renewable sources; and as of 2009, 73% of New Zealand’s energy is supplied by renewable resources.
Additionally, when battling widespread adoption of renewable energy, opponents rely on models and estimates based on a centralized, inefficient energy system—like the one that currently serves most of the nation. Without taking into account ever-increasing efficiency and the ability to jump back and forth between the grid and onsite power, many of the arguments against increased investment in renewable energy are based on false assumptions. And it’s interesting that with all the talk about future energy needs and the ability of fossil fuels to meet those needs, there’s very little discussion about the reduction of future demand due to increased efficiency and consumer outreach and education.
Finally, our reliance on fossil fuels has created a false marketplace wherein we avoid paying the real cost for our energy because that cost is subsidized (via tax breaks and other incentives) and deferred to future generations. Funding renewable R&D, extending tax breaks to clean technology companies, even funding training and education for future clean energy workers—it all requires real dollars right now. But, like most things in life, paying up front now means greater security (and savings) in the long run.