The infrastructure for producing and transmitting electrons across the United States since Edison began generating direct current in New Jersey and New York about a century ago had divided America for no other reason besides technology. The very innovation that had made power generation possible to light the streets and homes with incandescent light bulbs, had also necessitated that electricity be generated by the suppliers and distributed to the consumers. Nikola Tesla’s alternating current made it possible to transmit that power over long distances by the time World War II had ended. Now, Edison’s General Electric is a household name and perhaps so will be Tesla Motors, over the next 100 years.
The sum of the energy every American consumes at home and every workplace consumes at work is the energy footprint of the United States. American power companies have to generate far more power than is eventually used, because a lot of it is lost in transmission. So, they burn more coal, more natural gas and more enriched uranium than they need to to meet the energy demands of the largest economy on the planet only because it needs to be moved across within the various regional electricity grids in the country that were set up during the Great Depression.
Coal and natural gas are pollutants, natural gas much less so than coal. Uranium is clean but takes a large and sophisticated setup. Besides all the electricity, Americans are gluttons of oil to move freely around the country by air and road mostly since the end of World War II. Domestic oil production had peaked sometime in the ‘70s and since then oil imports and dependence on foreigners have gone up. And oil pollutes, whether it is the exhaust from a car or from an airplane.
Still, the separation of power plant and petrochemical pollution from day-to-day pollution due to the smog and other particulates from transportation in residential areas has, over time, because of the vast American expanse, has made health worries about it unevenly dispersed across the country and locally concentrated in urban and exurban areas. Environmental politics and law suits, much like tobacco politics, have helped clear the air more than any fundamental changes in the way we live as Americans.
Smoking has now become both a serious health concern and a cultural stigma. Not that many Americans smoke anymore as they used to. That change in the way of life since tobacco was introduced to the European colonizers by the American Indians almost 500 years ago has happened gradually. There is little time for such prolonged gradualism in changing our way of life to reduce our energy footprint and the associated pollution.
The world has been trying to congregate over pollution, energy and climate for about a decade now and complicated policies are being debated with considerable angst and energy to make compromises over competition for the dwindling fossil energy supplies and economic growth. This has become an existential matter for the United States, overblown into a problem of civilizational proportions since September 11, 2001, ignoring a far simpler and more immediate solution for both energy self-sufficiency and pollution reduction.
At the turn of the last century Detroit Electric was producing electric cars. They were the way to go until Henry Ford’s Model T had debuted, increasing the dependency on oil. Solar power has been around since the late President Nixon’s Operation Independence 1980 and President Carter’s formalization of the Department of Energy. And these two technologies have only improved in the last 40 years. Communications and computing, which began as a centralized behemoth a century ago, have evolved gracefully into a seamless, integrated, distributed, centralized-decentralized resource through exponential technical change becoming available anytime and anywhere. The same, however, has not been the case with energy and it is imminently feasible to make it so to fundamentally change the way we live to dramatically reduce our energy footprint and, hence, also pollution by bridging the divide between energy producers and consumers.
Bridging that divide need not be predicated on changing our energy production and distribution infrastructure. With solar power every home and workplace can be its own standalone electricity producer, yet connected to the existing electricity grid, to draw in power when they fall short and sell it back to the grid when they use less of their own. Similarly, with electric vehicles, there would be no reason to visit a gas station just as there is no reason to go anywhere to recharge the batteries of our mobile phones. Both of these together, will reduce the demand for power on the existing electricity generation infrastructure in the United States and the demand for gasoline. As a first step, even without clean coal, burning it less by substituting it with distributed small solar and making all buildings more energy efficient will substantially reduce pollution. The fast becoming norm of the American way of life with mobile communications and computing, if only work is organized by leveraging it, will reduce the need to both commute and travel, reducing gridlock, congestion, pollution and the wear and tear on the nation’s roadways and airways.
First changing the way we live in the immediate term by using existing technologies and domestic resources such as distributed small solar and coal/combined cycle for distributed/centralized-decentralized power production and natural gas hybrid and all-electric vehicles and by providing tax incentives to make that happen within the next decade can go a long way in properly sequencing America’s transition by mid-century to the next generation, fully clean energy and transportation economy.
By 2020, the United States will be fully self-sufficient in energy with small policy changes in 2010. And this will also be a good idea for Europe, China and India to emulate.