It is possible to reduce energy use, but most people need an economic incentive. Faced with a huge jump in heating oil prices, Americans cut their home use of fossil fuel by 25 percent between 1980 and 1985. When the energy crisis eased, their consumption went right back up again. Today, we remain resource gluttons, greedily taking in 24 percent of the world’s energy and 25 percent of its fossil fuels. And we’re using our cars more than ever-despite slowing population growth, there’s an annual three percent increase in vehicle miles traveled. If we stay on that track, by 2015 we’ll be importing italallend ital of our oil. What happened to the much-vaunted goal of energy independence?
It’s fair to ask how a country that had put clean renewable energy research on the fast track in the 1970s and was scared into conservation in the 1980s became so dependent on polluting fossil fuels and waste-intensive nuclear power in the 1990s. The answer, says our cover story this issue, lies in 12 years of active neglect by the Reagan and Bush administrations, and a Gulf War that was fought not to preserve human rights, but to keep artificially cheap fuel available at U.S. pumps. By taking the solar panels off the White House and putting them in storage, Ronald Reagan provided enough symbolism for a dozen editorial cartoonists.
Utility deregulation, which is now sweeping the country (six states have approved it, and 40 more are considering it), offers new hope that the renewable energy industry can be jump-started, but it also presents some formidable hurdles. By freeing Americans to buy their electricity on the open market, it helps create a market for “green power” (generated by renewable energy sources-solar, wind, geothermal and biomass-instead of coal, oil or nuclear). If the polls are correct, Americans will pay more for clean energy. But by introducing competition into former monopolies, deregulation provides an incentive for utilities to generate power as cheaply as possible-and right now that means dirty, outmoded oil- and coal-fired plants. It’s crucial that state deregulation laws include provisions that, in the words of Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “expose those plants to the full force of competition,” meaning that their owner-operators would be financially responsible for the pollution they create.
In much of Europe and throughout the developing world, renewable energy is an established force-Mexico is the third-largest producer of geothermal energy; Germany is the largest market for new wind turbines. In the U.S., renewable energy costs remain relatively high, but they’ve come down dramatically in the last 20 years. To truly be price-competitive with fossil fuels, though, they will require government subsidies for the near future (a $5 billion investment would turn the tide, some experts say). We need to make that investment now, or we’re doomed to remain dependent on a dwindling source of dirty power.
E would like to thank The Ettinger Foundation and The Changing Horizons Charitable Trust for their role in funding our three-part energy series, which begins in this issue. We would also like to bid a fond farewell to Nick Hanna, who’s leaving to pursue full-time parenthood. As the mainstay of our advertising department since 1993, he will be much missed