The Truth About Alternative Energy

This essay is a departure from my usual topic of writing, but I felt compelled to opine on the subject. What is the truth about alternative energy? Ask five people and you are likely to get five different answers, some of them attached to an agenda. I’m going to get right to the point. The truth about alternative energy is this. It isn’t new.

Decades ago, alternative energy ideas were propagated by Mother Earth types and regarded as a fairly fringe concept. Now, it has become trendy to be “green” and so many individuals, associations, and businesses are jumping on board that it has almost become cliché. Oil companies, politicians, activists, and assorted other groups and persons trot it out for reasons both obvious and obscure. What bothers me about the way alternative energy is approached and presented is that it smacks of novelty, or innovation. Often it is shoved at us as if it were a brand new idea that we, as consumers, should immediately adopt. We are frequently addressed as if we are stubbornly refusing to conform. The problem with this approach is the vague guilt and sense of undeserved accusation with which we are burdened. Here is another truth: the infrastructure, the home and city design, and the ability to utilize alternative energy are largely missing. Many consumers would absolutely love to “go green”, but can’t, and through no fault of our own. It’s akin to demanding that people fly, but refusing to concede that we don’t have wings and that there aren’t any wings to be had in the near future. It dumps a load of blame onto consumers for not using methods of energy that are simply unavailable to most of us.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the alternative energy dilemma remains this notion that it is cutting-edge and just needs the technologies to hurry and catch up. So much of these assumptions are false. Here are but a few examples:

Centuries ago, the Anasazi warmed their dwellings with passive solar. Passive solar design is being used today as well, but most homes were not designed with passive solar in mind. And not many people can afford a passive solar retrofit. Passive solar is not new at all. But it’s beyond the capacity of most consumers to attain.

The Model T ran on alcohol or gasoline. There used to be alcohol stations, just like there were gas stations. Now, it seems as if this is a new idea with the introduction of flex fuel vehicles, but it’s not new at all. And why it has taken so long for modern automotive manufacturers to conquer the problems associated with alcohol fuel is bewildering to consumers who know about the Model T. I don’t have any answers on that subject, only questions. In trying to research it, one finds many dissenting opinions on the subject.

For years, farmers right here in the USA used wind power to pump water. Windmills used to be a common rural sight. If you want to put up a modern version, a wind turbine and generator, you will be subject to zoning and regulations our forefathers never had to contend with. Often, many of its most vocal proponents are also its most vocal opposition because they think wind farms obscure their view. I personally find wind farms aesthetically pleasing. In Kansas, we have access to lots of wind energy. Always have; it’s not new.

Bicycles have also been around for years. They are a viable means of transportation, in good weather. Again, however, riders are faced with numerous obstacles. In my city, for instance, there are no good bike trails that lead to the places people need to go on a regular basis such as the grocery store, etc. It is forbidden to ride on the sidewalk, and the streets are dangerous. A few years ago, a man was following bicycle etiquette and law, and was run down and killed in the street about ten blocks from my home. Another difficulty is in place for riders of electric bikes in my town. Law says they must be tagged since they are motorized. Here is an example of the Catch 22 facing cyclists: “Officers aren’t against saving fuel. But the law says that any vehicle driven on a street has to be registered and have a license tag, said Lt. Russ Lamer, traffic unit commander. A motorized bicycle doesn’t have a vehicle identification number, so it can’t be registered, Lamer said. The same holds true for golf carts, which also are illegal to operate on Salina streets, he said. Mopeds have VINs, so they can be registered. Bicycles powered by electric motors also would not be legal to drive on city streets..” –Kansas Cyclist, Aug. 2010. I don’t know how it is in other states, but that is the law in my state.

There was an electric car a century ago. Ask Jay Leno. GM produced an electric car, the EV1, which was adored by drivers, several decades ago. Then later, GM reclaimed the cars and systematically destroyed them. Electric cars are nothing new.

Let’s face it. There are many people who would love to live a self-sustaining lifestyle. They would love to be independent of utility companies (and bills), repudiate fossil fuels, or to raise their own food. Regulations, zoning, lack of infrastructure, and the almost-deliberate-seeming preventions put into place by powers beyond our control make it difficult, if not impossible for most of us. Passive solar design is making a comeback, but it’s not exactly sweeping the nation. Even if it were, how many of us can afford to build a new home? Something as innocent as rainwater harvesting is actually outlawed in some places. And there are numerous criticisms of wood heating. It seems roadblocks to a “green” lifestyle are as abundant as the voices constantly preaching its benefits.

I apologize for presenting these fine alternatives and then finding problems with them. But it is the reality with which most of us live. I admire those who are able to live off-grid and realize an independence few of us will ever experience. Much of our country’s population is urban and confined by the particular restrictions that come with city life. The point I am trying to make is this: A lot of these so-called new ideas are not new at all, but the ability to take advantage of them is largely absent. It is with resentment that I listen to lectures from politicians and others who want people to get off of fossil fuels, but then throw one obstacle after another in the way of those who would like nothing more than an energy-independent nation. Much reviled as oil and gas are today, they still are what we have and what we use. It’s frustrating to be told not to use it, when we have little choice in the matter if we want to get around, get to work, run our errands, go on trips, etc. It’s also frustrating, to say the least, when oil companies and others giddily, repetitively, and in a very self-congratulatory manner, market the notion that new technology is being developed to free us from our energy woes, completely ignoring the fact that technology to solve this problem has existed for years. Their feel-good advertisements, in my opinion, are a waste of their money and a waste of my time. I simply don’t buy it. They should save the money they spend on those disingenuous ads and deduct it from the price of the fuel they are selling.

It is not necessary for our nation to be over the foreign oil barrel. So, why are we? I wish I could tell you, but I don’t know. It’s probably a long complicated answer warped by competing viewpoints and corrupted by disinformation and half-truths by all the various agendas, public and private. Political concern is at the heart of much of it, and that is a very untrustworthy motive. We are told we shouldn’t use our own oil. We are told we shouldn’t use foreign oil (on which I happen to agree). But while we are being lectured, our lecturers themselves are using oil. And they are forcing the country into the untenable position of buying it from hostile producers.

My conclusion is that it will take decades, if not longer, for any of the new-old methodologies, designs, and alternatives to be available to the masses in any significant way. A sincere desire for positive change in our energy situation will require grinding through layers and layers of prohibitory regulations, a scale of restructuring that is almost unimaginable, and the clearing away of mountains of obfuscation, corruption, and hidden agendas. It is a monumental task, made more difficult by serious disagreements on all sides. And the hapless consumers are relatively powerless in the process while we wait for alternative energy to become a reality. We are alternately punished or rewarded with taxes or tax credits, but not provided with any real and feasible options. We are stuck in the middle, regularly misinformed, and manipulated. Alternative energy may sound like a bright and shining future for America, and hopefully that will be the case. But it is not new.


(This editorial represents my opinions only, not those of my co-author.)