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New energy: climate change and sustainability shape a new era

A new energy revolution – similar to shifts from wood to coal to oil – is inevitable as climate change and oil scarcity drive a global search for sustainability in power production. But even the promise of renewable energy holds drawbacks.

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Solar panels are headed back to the White House roof. It's an odd echo of the Jimmy Carter days – the kind of news that might send your average conspiracy theorist scrambling to check whether Nostradamus predicted it. In fact, today's US energy scene bears plenty of odd similarities to that of the 1970s.

Then, as in 2008, gasoline prices spiked and the public directed its anger at energy companies' profits. Then, as now, competing interests called for solving the problem with more government regulation (to promote renewables) – and less regulation (to increase oil and gas production). Then as now, the public and many members of Congress bristled at the idea of pricing energy according to its real cost. And then, as now, a Democratic president ordered that solar panels be installed on the White House. (President Obama announced last month that the panels will be installed by the spring.)

In 2009 the crisis deflated once again, as outside forces (this time a recession) caused gasoline prices to fall. Falling prices drained some of the momentum from renewable energies. Some projects, like the Pickens offshore wind farm in Texas, got put on the back burner.

In a way, nothing has changed.

But the 1970s also spawned successes. France installed cookie-cutter nuclear power plants around the country; it now derives 75 percent of its electricity from the splitting of uranium atoms. Brazil achieved self-sufficiency for liquid fuels; it ramped up production of ethanol from sugar cane and compelled filling stations to stock the fuel.

"The countries that made more progress than [the US] chose a path, always controversial, and stayed with it," says Mr. Pratt.