The Big Spill

The oil spill in the Gulf has called many things into question. As millions of gallons of crude oil spewed from leaks in the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig that exploded on April 20, evading containment efforts, the full impact of the country’s continued oil dependence came into sharp focus. That includes President Obama’s stated support for offshore oil and gas drilling just a month prior in regions never before opened to such exploration—along the Atlantic coast, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska.

Only incredible public pressure forced the administration to finally issue a ban on offshore drilling operations in the Gulf, in addition to a six-month moratorium on new offshore drilling permits. But the moratorium only applies to wells deeper than 500 feet—shallower wells are exempt and can still be approved with an environmental waiver—the same type of waiver granted to the Deepwater Horizon plan.

How we can continue on such a course despite the oil-covered marshes, seabirds and fish, the ruined beaches, the crippled fishing industry and the altered chemistry of the ocean as a whole is hard to fathom. But if we are to ever seriously wean ourselves from oil, one thing is clear—it will require a complete national overhaul that begins with an updated power grid. A smart grid.

Those crisscrossing power lines that bring to life our appliances, TVs and computers are sorely outdated. They don’t well manage power drawn from intermittent, highly dispersed sources like wind and solar, or transmit such power well over significant distances, and they do not allow you and I, exercising judicial energy decisions at home, to help utilities determine how much power they have available at any one time. Our technology as a nation has surged into the future, but we’ve left our energy grid behind.

The time for a smart grid has come—so that we might lower our thermostats from our iPhones and track our household energy use on our laptops. Such a grid will speed the development of plug-in electric and hybrid cars that can act as sources of power while they are plugged in. It will allow us to reap the benefits of producing our own power through home solar and wind systems, to utilize smart appliances, ready to act when it’s most efficient, and for we, as a nation, to better control our energy habits as we aggressively move toward new renewable sources of power.

Some oil is better left alone.