Real Energy Independence ©2012 Larry Lewis
“Energy independence” has a lot of buzz these days. It’s an exciting idea: produce all our own energy so the nation is no longer beholden to oil-producing countries which may otherwise hate us. Good all around. Better for the trade imbalance, better for removing geopolitical influences which can warp our foreign policy, better for jobs here at home- just better. BUT-
But that’s not enough. It all depends how you do it.
If you replace all that notorious “foreign oil” with coal you lose. Coal releases the most carbon dioxide, sulfur compounds, mercury, and even radiation of all fossil fuels, all of which kill our own people, wildlife, water and land, and send acid rain into Canada as well.
Replace it with tar sands (think Alberta, Keystone XL pipeline) you lose. Whole landscapes are pillaged to get it, and each barrel of oil produced uses several barrels of fresh water, which itself is a threatened resource.
Try oil shale you lose. Landscape depredation, acid runoff, mercury, arsenic- ick.
Turn it around and export our coal you lose, ‘cuz all that garbage we ship to them returns home to haunt us.
And don’t fool yourself that any of these alternatives will be cheap. The ersatz oil is much more expensive than "light sweet crude" straight from the ground. All versions of it take massive processing even to get to a pipeline. The only reason we’re talking about it now is the price of conventional oil is now consistently high enough the oil companies will bother to invest in it. Coal is cheaper to buy, but much more expensive to clean up.
So if you look only at short term geopolitics any option seems okay, but that’s just it. It’s not. If your Plan B hurts you and yours why would you do it? Focus instead on solar, wind, tide, biofuels and other potential renewable sources and it’s all different.
All the equations change when your Energy Independence is also your Response To Climate Change, because no matter what, it’s coming. On November 24, the New York Times ran an article summarizing a NOAA/USGS report on what different levels of sea level rise would do to a number of US cities, including Seattle (you can see Shoreline - goodbye, Point Wells) and Tacoma.
Spoiler alert: in extremis, Bothell could be seafront property!
This is something . All of us could put up a solar system or a wind generator on our own homes. We have significant tidal flow just off our shore. We could tap all of these options, and we should. I don’t really think we’ll see any advantage to severing our water system from Seattle City Light, but setting up our own electric utility?
That may work beautifully. All that large-scale stuff is fine, but take a look at what the small-scale approach brings to us: resilience.
The more of our own energy we generate here the more we can weather whatever Mother Nature dumps on us. Instead of relying only on hydroelectric dams in the mountains and their huge high-tension lines we could make our own and add it into the grid so when the storms next take out the system we’ll have a backup.
If it’s below freezing and your power is out maybe your neighbor will be generating and will be able to keep you and yours going. Maybe next time you’ll return the favor. Have you ever tripped and fallen? Of course. Everyone has. Have you ever seen a centipede trip itself? No. Can’t be done. It has dozens of legs, all compensating for what happens to the rest. It is inherently stable and resilient.
That’s how we need to structure our electric grid. It’s that new Smart Grid all the cool people are talking about. It's NOT about 'going off the grid' it's about being more completely integrated into the grid- a producer and a consumer!
What we are trying to avoid is a Malthusian world. Thomas Robert Malthus was the first thinker to point out that as population rises it puts greater and greater strains on the food supply and eventually will take care of itself by starvation and disease.
An ugly thought, to be sure, and we’ve so far avoided the worst of the consequences here, but it’s laughable to think we can outrun the Horsemen forever if we don’t repent our rapacious ways. And it’s not like this is all a matter of mere inertia.
There are people actively working to increase our fossil fuel usage- people who either don’t believe climate is changing (as if plain scientific fact required their belief!) or don’t care. These senators are promoting a destructive approach under the ‘energy independence ‘ banner, but it’s both bi-partisan and deadly
This is not just about “energy independence” in an “us vs them” sense. It’s about sustainability- independence from fossil fuels, from their poison, from their expense, from their multi-century dystopian consequences.
Even Siegfried and Roy had to find out the tragic way that at some point a tiger- a wild top predator- no matter how long-acquainted- will do what a wild top predator will do, and you just have to respect that.
It’s about being grown up enough to avoid pushing on all the natural triggers and forcing a terrible natural backlash.