Decentralized power sources are the new victory gardens
Among many new terrors revealed last September 11 was the precariousness of our energy system. With worst-case scenarios being surpassed by reality, nuclear power plants and giant hydroelectric dams suddenly started looking like targets. And it only took a drunk with a gun to shut down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for three days.
As during the Gulf War, alarms are being raised about the 22 percent of U.S. oil that comes from the Middle East. President George W. Bush's solution is to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even though it couldn't supply more than 3 percent of our oil, or even be available for ten years. Barring the discovery of stupendously large oil fields in friendly, accessible parts of the world, the United States will depend on oil from the Middle East as long as we depend on oil. As Canadian environment minister David Anderson put it, "Whenever asked what an individual can do to fight terrorism, the answer is very simple: Drive less."
There is something jarring these days about those giant SUVs flying enormous American flags. Environmentalists are responding with a new press for improvements in U.S. auto fuel-efficiency standards, now at their lowest point in 20 years. Off the road, in a modern-day echo of the World War II "victory gardens," families, businesses, and communities are generating their own power. Every day, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 30 micro-power plants are installed atop or within buildings: solar panels, windmills, fuel cells, or mini-natural-gas turbines. Even apart from the new, often zero-emission technology they employ, these sources are intrinsically more efficient, since they avoid the 5 to 20 percent power loss that comes with transmission of electricity across hundreds of miles. And while traditional power plants lose 60 percent of their energy as heat, homes and businesses can capture this energy to heat water and living spaces, or even use it in air conditioning with absorption-chillers.
Nationwide, with solar technology becoming increasingly affordable, demand for solar cells has tripled in the last two years. More than a million Americans use solar water heaters, and more than 200,000 homes use photovoltaic systems. "That's thousands of people thinking of themselves as power producers," says David Morris, vice president of the institute. Such literally empowered citizens can be counted on to make their voices heard in favor of energy independence. Solar is even making inroads in oil-rich Alaska. For instance, the 106 new solar panels in the remote town of Lime (population 50) replace more than 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year.
In West Texas, tapped-out oilfields are increasingly covered with wind farms, and blustery North Dakota refers to itself as "the Saudi Arabia of wind power." U.S. wind generation has been increasing annually at about 11 percent; last year, it rose nearly 50 percent. Even in the absence of aggressive policy changes, says the American Wind Energy Association, wind could provide up to 6 percent of America's energy by 2020.
Eagerly awaited are new technologies like hydrogen fuel cells, which could power homes or cars (or both), and whose only waste product is clean water. These are already available in the 250-kilowatt range, and home-size models are now being tested.
But it doesn't necessarily take whiz-bang technology to reduce our fossil-fuel insecurity. California consumers showed the way in last year's energy crunch when they voluntarily pitched in to reduce their usage by more than 10 percent overall. In energy matters, security can be as simple as taking power into your own hands. --Paul Rauber