Sunday, March 26, 2006

Future Power!

Where on Earth can our energy-hungry society turn to replace oil, coal, and natural gas?
I stand in a cluttered room surrounded by the debris of electrical enthusiasm: wire peelings, snippets of copper, yellow connectors, insulated pliers. For me these are the tools of freedom. I have just installed a dozen solar panels on my roof, and they work. A meter shows that 1,285 watts of power are blasting straight from the sun into my system, charging my batteries, cooling my refrigerator, humming through my computer, liberating my life.

The euphoria of energy freedom is addictive. Don't get me wrong; I love fossil fuels. I live on an island that happens to have no utilities, but otherwise my wife and I have a normal American life. We don't want propane refrigerators, kerosene lamps, or composting toilets. We want a lot of electrical outlets and a cappuccino maker. But when I turn on those panels, wow!

Maybe that's because for me, as for most Americans, one energy crisis or another has shadowed most of the past three decades. From the OPEC crunch of the 1970s to the skyrocketing cost of oil and gasoline today, the world's concern over energy has haunted presidential speeches, congressional campaigns, disaster books, and my own sense of well-being with the same kind of gnawing unease that characterized the Cold War.

As National Geographic reported in June 2004, oil, no longer cheap, may soon decline. Instability where most oil is found, from the Persian Gulf to Nigeria to Venezuela, makes this lifeline fragile. Natural gas can be hard to transport and is prone to shortages. We won't run out of coal anytime soon, or the largely untapped deposits of tar sands and oil shale. But it's clear that the carbon dioxide spewed by coal and other fossil fuels is warming the planet, as this magazine reported last September.

Cutting loose from that worry is enticing. With my new panels, nothing stands between me and limitless energy—no foreign nation, no power company, no carbon-emission guilt. I'm free!

Well, almost. Here comes a cloud.

Shade steals across my panels and over my heart. The meter shows only 120 watts. I'm going to have to start the generator and burn some more gasoline. This isn't going to be easy after all.

The trouble with energy freedom is that it's addictive; when you get a little, you want a lot. In microcosm I'm like people in government, industry, and private life all over the world, who have tasted a bit of this curious and compelling kind of liberty and are determined to find more.

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