By Frank Wessling
Do any American children think about all that must happen for the lights to go on in their homes when they flip a switch on the wall? Perhaps during the school semester that electricity is part of their study, but that’s it.
Part of living in the modern world is forgetting, ignoring, or not knowing the sources of the light, heat, cooling, refrigeration and quick information that make life soft and easy.
Then the earth shakes in its depth, the ocean rises, and an irresistible wall of water forces us awake. That’s what happened with the earthquake and tsunami that wrecked a swath of Japan’s coast that includes nuclear power plants. As we hear and read about the danger from radioactive material in those damaged facilities, it suddenly hits: our electrical servant is connected to massive and dangerous sources.
It normally takes a crisis to force serious thinking, and the disaster in Japan is another such opportunity to face some realities about our way of life. Much of it is thoughtless and therefore full of waste. And part of that waste is a danger to the earth itself as some of our energy processes affect the high atmosphere.
That very convenient light switch is connected to a coal mine or deep shaft and pipeline flowing with oil or gas, or its source is a giant river dam or a nuclear power plant. Light and heat are now a massive communal project rather than one person holding a match to a bunch of sticks and logs. All of us together need to think about how we get and manage the energy we want.
Honest accounting for cost should be a starting point. This country has no real energy policy because we’ve been able to flounder and waste as luck and political winds flowed. We need to look now at all options for energy sources and give priority to those with least harmful impact and most renewable. According to the Department of Energy, at current cost, electricity from natural gas is cheapest, followed by hydropower, coal and wind. Nuclear and solar energy are the most expensive, although this is hidden in the nuclear case because of huge subsidies.
Here in Iowa we’re aware of the subsidy currently helping to keep corn-based ethanol in the total energy mix. But ethanol is one of the less efficient elements.
We should redirect the subsidies currently flowing into modern energy sources away from the dangerous and costly toward renewables like wind and sun. When the true cost of all sources becomes apparent, they may quickly give us a way to reach at least two desirable goals: end reliance on dirty energy, and reduce reliance on unstable foreign sources of oil.
And a truly enlightened result is possible if a period of serious thought also leads to more awareness of waste and the need for conservation among all of us.