The never-ending energy transition

Everything goes in the world of energy.  We’re splitting atoms, wood, and hydrocarbons; tapping the heat of the planet and harnessing its wind and waves. We're harvesting sunshine, squeezing fuel out of corn and sugar cane, and fracturing shale. No one technology looks like it will carry the day.

By , Editor-at-Large

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    A sculptural pushback on alternative-energy policy stood near the Chancellery in Berlin last March.
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Energy’s unending transition

A friend who lives in the historical district of a historical town wants to put solar panels on her roof. To her, it’s a practical decision with a nice environmental benefit. Home Depot signed her up. The panels seem to blend in with the black shingles on the side of her house; her roof is high; neighboring houses are close. It’s hard to see how the installation would disrupt the street’s ambiance. In the mock-ups, it’s hard to see the panels at all. But the local historical commission has twice ruled that solar panels are not in keeping with the early-American character of the street.

I’m not here to argue her case or to criticize a citizens’ board that is trying to preserve a street’s historical legacy. The commissioners might be right. My friend might be right. What’s interesting to me is the selective cropping we do when it comes to energy and other modern conveniences. Overhead wires hang like bunting on her street. Cars snug up to the curbs. Mercury vapor lights loom overhead. A generous eye could see a kind of Ashcan School beauty in all of that overlapping infrastructure, but if you were looking for early America you would need to be extremely aggressive at cropping.

Infrastructure isn’t pretty. Pipelines and tailpipes make modern life possible. A small candle in a window is romantic as long as it isn’t our only light source. We need our energy, but we try not to think about where it comes from. A hissing refinery complex on the Saudi Arabian coast, a pipeline cutting through the Nebraska Sandhills, a shoal off Nantucket jammed with wind turbines – while you can have a grudging appreciation for the engineering know-how and the scale of energy infrastructure, most people would rather not see how their juice is made.

Right now is probably the most everything-goes moment in energy choices that the world has ever known. We’re simultaneously splitting atoms, wood, and hydrocarbons. We’re tapping the heat of the planet and harnessing its wind and waves. We are harvesting sunshine, squeezing fuel out of corn and sugar cane, and fracturing shale. We’re pouring billions of dollars and the best minds in science into fusion projects around the world. We are making progress with energy efficiency. 

We’re all over the map. We need to be. Population growth and economic growth are ravenous maws for energy. Waste streams are giant problems for the environment.

Nowhere is energy experimentation more aggressively being pursued than in Germany. In a Monitor cover story, David Unger takes us on a tour of the Energiewende – or “energy transition” – that Germany has embarked on. By 2022, the country plans to be free from nuclear power. Three decades later, it plans to be getting 80 percent of its electricity from renewables. It is paying the price with some of Europe’s highest electricity bills, and there are growing concerns that the country risks losing business to cheaper-energy countries such as the surging, energy-from-fracking United States.

Germany’s race to a renewable future is purposeful, but there won’t be a finish line. Adjustments will always be needed as economic, environmental, and other factors change. There will be a heavier emphasis on renewables but still a need for coal and hydrocarbons. As on my friend’s street, energy sources will overlap. We can’t go back to a time before electrical grids. We won’t have a future without them. We’ll always be in transition.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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