Amid reports of climate change and growing global tensions, many Americans seem strangely fond of their low energy IQs. We gas up our cars, cool down our houses, and figure the power will always be there when we flip the switches. As for renewable energy sources like solar power and wind, there's more buzz in the media about energy drinks.
But rising costs may soon force us to become more energy conscious, if not obsessed. As oil supplies tighten over the next decade or so, two bucks for a gallon of gas will look like the good old days, but that'll be the least of our worries. We tend to burn far more energy than people in poorer countries do, and our abundance often comes at their expense. Social unrest and ecological damage are just part of the price we're asking the world to pay so we can remain its energy gluttons.
Many observers say we could painlessly use less oil, coal, and natural gas. New wind turbines and solar technology are making renewable energy ever cheaper. We even have the digital networking tools to knit these new sources into the energy grid. What we lack is the political will to see that happen. Congress and the White House ought to be setting higher efficiency standards for appliances, buildings, and cars. They could be using tax credits and other incentives to steer the country toward a greener energy mix. Instead, most federal subsidies now go to shoring up an old energy regime built on fossil fuels. As careless consumers we're doing the same thing.
Though a realistic plan for the nation's future has yet to emerge, programs are under way, especially at the state level, to improve energy use. At their best, they offer the public a chance to play a part in the vast social experiment of shaping tomorrow's energy supply.
Federal incentives: hybrid cars, solar roofs, hot air for wind
Buying a gasoline-electric hybrid car or some other "clean-fuel vehicle" is one of the rare ways of thinking green for which the feds will actually reward you. Hybrids get good mileage by pairing a small standard engine with an electric motor that recharges while you drive. Toyota and Honda already sell hybrids, and models from Ford and General Motors are on the way. New owners can claim a $1,500 tax deduction in 2004, which is $500 less than last year. The deduction will drop $500 per year and, if it is not renewed, will no longer apply to clean cars put on the road after 2006. For details, go to the Internal Revenue Service Web site (www.irs.gov) and search for "clean-fuel vehicles."
As for solar power, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) runs a program called the Million Solar Roofs Initiative (www.millionsolarroofs.org), whose aim is to see a million buildings fitted with solar-powered electric systems and water heaters by 2010. Launched back in the Clinton years, the plan won't pay you to put up solar panels, but it does fund various studies and local partnerships.
Americans have not been encouraged this year to start a wind farm. A crucial tax credit for wind producers expired at the end of 2003, and the turbine trade has been hurting ever since. Congress was set to extend the credit as part of a giant federal energy bill more widely known for its huge handouts to the oil, coal, and nuclear industries. The bill stalled last December, which might be a good thing, except that it also blocked a few incentives for renewable energy -- like the wind production credit, and the first tax credit ever for home owners and others putting up small backyard turbines.
Industry observers say the credit for bigger producers will probably pass this year on one bill or another, but as of mid-spring they weren't predicting when. It's the third time in five years that the credit has been allowed to lapse, throwing the otherwise healthy wind sector into a series of short slumps.
State incentives: the local revolution
Thanks in part to state credits and other programs, Minnesota is a wind energy overachiever. Meteorologists rank it ninth in the country for potential wind production, but it's third or fourth in terms of installed wind power capacity. Inspired by such successes, local efforts to encourage renewable energy are getting more creative across the country.
With DOE funds, a group called the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (www.irecusa.org) oversees a useful Web resource called the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (www.dsireusa.org). Visitors can click on a U.S. map and find out what credits and other encouragements are offered in their home states. Along with incentives for using solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal power in certain places, at least 10 states provide some reward for using clean-fuel cars, including those that run on hydrogen, ethanol, and natural gas.
More than two-thirds of our electricity is now produced from fossil fuels. In a few states, you can now shop around for an electricity provider that uses a share of renewable energy. In other states, "green pricing" programs let you pay a few extra dollars for electricity with the understanding that your utility will apply the extra fee to develop plants that run on alternative fuels. Another way to help underwrite such projects is to buy "green tags" from renewable energy producers themselves. Check out "A Consumer's Guide to Buying Clean Energy" at the Web site of the National Resources Defense Council, a good source on green power in general (www.nrdc.org/air/energy/gcleanen.asp).
Some states now require electricity generators to produce or buy a certain percentage of their energy from alternative sources. Supporters say that the "renewables portfolio standard," or RPS, is a market-driven approach to getting renewable energy sources into the mix. An effort to pass a national RPS failed last year in Congress. The American Wind Energy Association (www.awea.org) is a big supporter of the RPS movement.
Personal incentives: love of the earth
New technologies, taxes, and credits can all be used to shape our energy future, but they may not be enough. In his recent book Energy at the Crossroads (MIT Press), Vaclav Smil argues that improving energy efficiency does not guarantee that a society will use less of it. In his sweeping survey of global energy trends, Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba, concludes that the opposite is true, and we're the perfect example. Our society is brilliant at finding ways to do more work with less power, but even when it's corrected for a bigger population, our energy use rate keeps climbing.
In Smil's view, "shaping the future energy use in the affluent world is primarily a moral issue, not a technical or economic matter." The same goes for helping less fortunate lands achieve a quality of life that at least approaches ours. We have the tools to accomplish both tasks, he says, but what we lack is the right attitude. Along with a new open-mindedness about possible solutions, we desperately need to deepen our respect for each other and for the living planet that supports us.
Plentiful energy has fueled an era of great freedom and pleasure in our society, but it's time to start cutting back. A first step would be to cop to the violence that now supports our floating world of energy excess. Beyond that, making a few small changes to reduce personal energy use might seem merely symbolic, even naive, until you figure that we live inside a giant stadium wave. If you stand up for something, others will as well.
House of Wind
Wind harvesting is getting to be a home-grown affair again, thanks to a new crop of smaller, quieter turbines. What's more, many states now offer backyard wind (and solar) producers some form of "net metering," a service provided through local utilities. If you generate more power than you're using, the utility will credit you for the excess going back into the grid. For more information: www.awea.org/smallwind.
At a time when extravagant energy use is often mistaken for our patriotic duty, the advice to ease up a bit can sound downright subversive. As a new TV series sets out to show, nothing could be less true. Hosted by Wanda Urbanska and slated to be available on numerous PBS affiliates this summer, Simple Living aims to be a kind of This Old House for the American dream. Each half-hour episode is a how-to guide to stripping away the excess that lies like bad shag carpet over our true (and frugal) national character.
Urbanska and her husband, the writer Frank Levering, called upon their hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina, to help them get the series off the ground. The locals pitched in with money, materials, and a lot of goodwill. The result is a gentle tribute to older American values, including a few surprises, like challenging us to become social "joiners" and to explore the Quaker practice of quiet meditation. A regular segment called "the thing that refused to die" features in one episode a toaster from a 1970s garage sale that's still running. Such sturdy relics remind us that we once at least tried to make things that lasted forever -- in working order, that is, not broken at the dump.
Simple Living is no Frontline exposé on our runaway bad habits. It's a friendly reminder that if we "do the math," we'll discover that our little acts of wastefulness at home turn into cultural trends with global consequences. The good news is that changing course can be surprisingly easy and even fun. Whether it's riding a bike or switching to more efficient light bulbs, the message of Simple Living is clear: "Nothing's too small to make a difference."