Shining Some Light on Our Energy Future

What kind of future do we want, and what role does energy play in making that future a reality? It's human nature to cling to the familiar, but history has taught us that transformative change can occur even in a single generation.


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Imagining the future of energy can be challenging. For one thing, it's hard to picture a world that's drastically different from the present one.

That's partly because a lot of things don't appear to change. Take the way we fuel our cars. For generations, ever since the first Model T rolled off the production line in 1908, we've filled our tanks at the gas pump. 

There are more than 250 million passenger vehicles on American roads - nearly all of them fueled by gasoline. According to a May 2 post on the Washington Post's Wonkblog, last year, out of 14.5 million new cars and trucks sold in the United States, just 20,381 ran on natural gas and about 50,000 were plug-in electric cars.

Is it really possible that electric cars - or cars powered by natural gas - will become anything more than a feel-good luxury for those with the means and motivation to buy one? Even if scientists and economists are telling us, "Yes, it can be done," and even if we personally believe it might be a positive change, it's still hard to picture such a radical shift from the status quo.

Furthermore, it's human nature to cling to the familiar. As we squint our eyes and gaze into the hazy future of our energy economy, we may feel some kinship with Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, shielding her eyes from the newfangled lighting at Downton Abbey and declaring, "I couldn't have electricity in the house, I wouldn't sleep a wink. All those vapors floating about." 

Of course we all know that by midcentury, virtually every home in the U.K., Western Europe, and the U.S. was electrified. Yet this incredible transformation of everyday life would have been difficult to predict at the turn of the twentieth century, even for the most eager early adopters of the new technology. 

Clearly, history has a few lessons to teach us about how transformative change can be and how quickly that change can occur. We have experienced seismic shifts in the energy landscape in the last 100 years, including the rise of the car and widespread electrification. And in the century before that, the world was turned on its head by the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution. Remembering the impact of these game-changing developments also helps us to appreciate and understand the role of market forces, public policy, infrastructure, and scientific innovation in shaping the future of energy. 

Picturing the future isn't just challenging; it also tends to be polarizing, especially when it comes to complicated and controversial topics like energy. Passions too often run high and people feel compelled to pick sides.

In his excellent and evenhanded new book, The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future, Michael A. Levi, the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, traces the history of the polarized battle over America's energy future back to the energy crisis of the 1970s, and explains where that history has landed us:

"Just as they did in the 1970s, Americans appear to face a stark choice. Though proponents of each path agree on little else, they largely concur that the nation must now decide firmly one way or the other. 

"This view is mistaken. The world has changed fundamentally since the battle lines in the fight over American energy were first set. It is no doubt possible to push too hard on any particular energy source.

"But the fact that there are wrong ways to pursue each energy source does not mean there aren't opportunities to gain from all of them. The United States can strengthen its economy, improve its national security, and confront climate change if it intelligently embraces the historic gains unfolding all across the energy landscape."  

We are in the midst of multiple energy transformations, and the decisions we make today will have serious impacts on the future. How do we want to consume energy? How do we want to conserve it? Will our primary energy sources change in significant ways? How does our national energy economy fit into the global energy economy? What kind of future do we want, and what role does energy play in making that future a reality?

That last question is really the most important one. Even as people argue over the type of energy future they think is "right" or "wrong," their passion often arises from shared priorities. As Levi explains, most people want "economic prosperity, national security, and a cleaner environment for their kids. They just disagree, often vehemently, about what matters most and the best way to deliver it."

We need to be willing to ask tough questions and take an active role, as consumers and citizens, in defining the future. After all, most of us do share common goals--and our children and grandchildren will live the results of the choices that we make today. 

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