Pick Any Two

It’s a well-worn story about the hard reality of commerce.

There’s a sign in the window of an old main-street appliance repair shop.

Fast. Cheap. Guaranteed.

Pick any two.

This story captures our society’s energy problem in a nutshell. Our problem is we have come to expect our energy to be all three at once; fast, cheap and guaranteed.

How fast do we demand our energy?

Flip a switch. Lights on. Plug in our computing and telecommunications devices. Charged. Drive into a gas station. Swipe the credit card. Pump.

That fast.

Are we conscious of where the electricity comes from, how it was produced, what fuel source was used to generate it? Do we care how difficult it was to extract the crude oil that was refined into auto fuel?

Not likely.

How cheap do we want it?

Real cheap. American energy prices are low, relative to world prices, yet many political careers are still made (and lost) tilting at the windmills of rising gasoline prices. Our national expectation continues to be plentiful, accessible and cheap energy.

Guaranteed?

Absolutely. We never want to be turned away at the pump, never want to deal with daily blackouts or other service interruptions.

I once worked at a technology company that was completely shut down during the rolling blackouts of 2000. Americans won’t tolerate that again. And when push comes to shove, the guarantee of access trumps other concerns, such as source, environmental implications, difficulty for providers.

There’s a hard truth to energy we do our best to keep in the deep recesses of our collective unconscious. It is a difficult and dirty business. Drilling for and extracting oil and natural gas is rough and dirty business. It requires tradeoffs with environmental concerns. Disasters sometimes happen. People get hurt and sometimes die getting our energy to us. The people who work in the energy business know this but we do our best to think about it as infrequently as we are able.

We’re reminded when there are large events, like spills, fires or natural disasters. When these events pass so, unfortunately, does our attention. Because we don’t consciously wrestle with the inherent and necessary tradeoffs of energy, others do it for us. We cannot and, in fact, do not escape the ‘pick any two’ reality just because we wish it.

We must be conscious. We must engage. We must choose or we will have the choice made for us.

Energy is Serious Business

As far as energy use, we Americans have had a pretty appalling record during the modern era. We use more energy per capita than any nation on earth; we are coming very very late to the conservation, renewables and sustainability party. And Republican candidates for president have lately provided no signs of easing off of their “drill, baby, drill,” use-not-save, red-meat mentality.

A recent survey by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, funded by the Joyce Foundation might show some cause for optimism. The AP reports that:

“…energy, especially in a weak economy, is prominently on people’s minds — and may explain why it’s being talked about in the presidential campaign. Nearly 8 in 10 called energy deeply important to them, trumping concerns about the federal deficit and the environment.”

If true, is this the sign of a positive change in Americans’ consciousness or just a pre-summer, pre-election blip? It’s hard to know, but I’ll remain skeptical as long as I continue to see idiots like this (see below) on the road.

[Thanks to The Bliss Index for posting this photo, as a joke. Hahaha. A truck spewing toxic chemicals into the environment for our kids to breathe. Really funny. Get it?]

Hope for Renewables? Even the Slightest?

There may be a model for progress in renewable energy from a somewhat unexpected source.

I starting working seriously in what was then called alternative energy (now,most often, renewables) in the early 1980s. It was a moment of optimism or, more accurately, the end of a moment of optimism, some would say foolish optimism, about weaning western economies off complete reliance on fossil fuels. There were very advantageous tax credits for investment in non-fossil energy, like solar, wind, cogeneration and hydroelectric. The federal and state governments, even many local governments, were investing directly in projects, some pilots and some to full-scale.

As a staff member of a state agency in North Carolina in the 1980s, I remember running some financial analyses in which 55 percent of investment costs in a certain cogeneration project were returned in the form of first-year tax credits, both federal and state. Operating under those conditions, few projects were rejected. That was good, in a way, because a lot of generation capacity and infrastructure was built and a lot of new technologies were developed. But, of course, it wasn’t completely good, because some of those projects were not, as it turned out, the best use of resources.

In any event, there was significant interest in non-fossil energy development, there was substantial growth, new enterprises, significant investment, and projections of much more of the same.

Many of these non-fossil energy programs had started with characteristic super-seriousness in the Carter administration following the ‘moral equivalent of war’ speech to the nation, but fell into disrepute with the election of Ronald Reagan and were either unfunded or allowed to expire. And that, as they say, was pretty much that. Renewables have continued to grow in importance and scale, but at nowhere near the size or pace once forecasted.

In the intervening thirty years, or so, we in America have engaged in mostly ineffective and unproductive, finger-pointing, blaming and shaming Kabuki theater that passes for debate hereabouts. Renewable supporters pretty much directly accuse the mainstream oil and gas industry of orchestrating a money-fueled conspiracy to perpetuate our addiction to fossil fuels. Supporters of the fossil energy industry, including many government officials who still count on ‘big oil’ for contributions to both campaign and constituent economies, complain about undue environmental restrictions which prevent the country from effectively employing its domestic resources.

Result? Mistrust. Muddle. No progress. (By the way, my experience suggests the situation is much more nuanced than our national dialog suggests; people in the energy business aren’t necessarily evil and environmentalists waste a lot of air-time accusing them of being so.)

America might best look – as it often should for examples of how adults behave in matters of serious policy debates – to Europe for a way forward.

Günther Oettinger is the European Commission’s energy commissioner. And, although he was a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party and himself a political conservative, he was won praise from Europe’s environmentalists for promoting a sensible way forward in promoting decarbonization, the use of non-fossil fuels to promote the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. He has also proposed comprehensive energy efficiency programs, funded by utility re-investment.

Oettinger has taken no little flak from his conservative colleagues back home but he has remained steadfast in moving the agenda forward because he thinks it is the right way forward for Europe. No blaming. No posturing. No demonizing.

Can you imagine an American conservative doing the same? Can you imagine one even publicly acknowledging the issue of carbon dioxide emissions much less taking on conservative colleagues to get something done on the issue?

We have so much to learn.