Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Energy Conundrum

I have had this story in my head for about a month now. I would hope it scares and inspires us to realize that by maintaining the energy status quo we may be forfeiting any energy independence we could gain if we don't begin the arduous path towards maximizing our energy efficiency, and seeking, supporting and perfecting alternate ways to provide our energy needs.

The Energy Conundrum

King Nayef waived nonchalantly to his royal guard, indicating his permission to allow entrance for today’s visitors. The king sat comfortably at the small but elegant, hard-wood table which dominated the otherwise impressively furnished meeting room, one of six similarly fashioned meeting rooms on this floor. Only royal insignia engraved on the high-backed chair on which he reposed revealed the special nature of this particular room.

Strange Americans, the king thought.

From the days of the early struggles to find, tap and release the vast quantities of oil that lay buried in the Saudi Arabian deserts, the American companies’ superior technology and relentless work force combined with a bottomless source of government financial and military support, had tamed the harsh environment, providing the energy for the world’s industries and economies to prosper. It was a win-win situation that changed the face of the planet and made possible countless advances in the lives of everyday people, while, of course, enabling the desert nations of the Middle East and their royal rulers to attain riches beyond their wildest dreams.

Even through the oil embargo days of the 1970’s and the severe highs and lows of the cost of oil in the early part of the 21st century, the Americans and their western allies expended massive amounts of resources to keep the oil flowing. Despite repeated warnings from their own scientific community that the burning of fossil fuels was damaging the earth’s ecosystem, they continued their dependence on oil, continued their astronomical thirst (and waste) of energy.

The king thought of that curious American toy called the yo-yo that he had played with endlessly one summer as a child. Down goes the price of oil, up goes the sales of gas guzzling cars, SUV’s and trucks. Up comes the price of oil; up goes the sale of energy efficient and alternative energy vehicles. Down goes the price of oil again, up goes the sales of those same cars and trucks that nobody wanted just a few years before. Then, up goes the price of oil again. Up and down, up and down like a yo-yo, the pattern repeated, the gnashing of teeth when the price was high, the profligate waste when the price was low.

The king smiled. For, despite the ups and downs of cost and supply, the money flowed continuously for his country and his family. And, when a real threat occurred to the supply of oil, the Americans were the first on the scene allocating even more resources on military interventions which toppled governments in the name of freedom all the while continuing to support those nations which guaranteed the flow of oil despite its humanitarian record or suppression of dissidents.

Now, over a hundred years after the first oil wells of the 1930’s, the American president and his delegation were waiting for an audience to ask for an increase in the flow of energy. Again. It was as if their incredible ability to invent, perfect and bring to market the technologies that provided the mechanisms to create and harness energy was equally limited by their political will to force the citizenry to embrace the changes needed to move forward. Again, the king smiled to think that democracy was a wonderful political concept, a truly enlightened way for people to govern themselves, but nothing beat a dictatorship for making people do what was necessary to achieve a nation’s security.

The meeting room door opened and in walked the president, his secretary of energy, the Senate majority leader and three of the most influential business leaders of the United States. The best men and women from the most powerful country in the world, and all here to promise the king anything and everything to slate their country’s never ending needs for energy.

“Welcome my friends”, the king began. “Please, make yourselves comfortable”.
The American delegation found their chairs but barely heard the king’s words. They were too distracted by the immense pictures that covered the walls on all sides of the room. First distracted, then awed when the realization struck them that these weren’t pictures but monitors. Monitors that displayed the vast solar collection fields that existed for hundreds of miles across the Arabian Desert.

“I see you are impressed by the view”, the king said.

Huge solar collectors converting the almost constant light of the sun into clean energy. Collectors invented by American companies, installed by American technicians, monitored by American engineers who controlled the transmission of the billions of megawatts through power lines invented, installed and maintained by American and German contractors. Energy which required no digging in the earth, no processing in pollution producing factories, no pumping of millions of gallons of chemically treated water into the ground.

Solar technology bought and paid for with the money of the very customers who traded their dependence on oil and fossil fuels for a new dependence on an energy source that shines down for free but was deemed too costly, too ugly, and too futuristic to pursue with any conviction.

“What can I do for you”? the king began.

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