Better energy security

Nearly a tenth of America's energy comes from imported oil. Much of that oil hangs by a thread.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that nearly all of the other 90-odd percent of the nation's energy is equally vulnerable - easily disrupted by accident, natural disaster, or terrorism. A few people could shut off three-fourths of the natural gas to the eastern United States in one evening without leaving Louisiana. Domestic oil systems are at least that fragile. Electric grids are even more so.

Most US energy travels hundreds or thousands of miles. It depends on the split-second timing of computer-controlled networks which link incredibly complex multi-billion-dollar machines. National policy has intensively promoted such systems as a replacement for foreign oil, without realizing that they were at least as vulnerable. The energy industries spend a Treasury subsidy of more than $10 billion a year building an energy system so centralized and complex that a handful of people can turn off the country. Policies meant to increase our energy security are reducing it, undermining the mission of our Armed Forces.

This growing threat to American prosperity, liberties, and even lives is real. Centralized energy systems have lately been attacked in 26 states and 40 foreign countries. Such attacks are occurring weekly. They are becoming more frequent, intense, and sophisticated. Terrorists already know that modern energy systems are among the softest targets. It is time the public and politicians knew it too -- and found out what they can do about it.

For there is an alternative. The energy options that are cheapest (and best for jobs and the environment) can also be inherently resilient. The best buys -- efficient energy use and appropriate renewable sources - can meet the energy needs of a dynamic economy, save trillions of dollars, and make major failures of energy supply impossible.

The first step toward energy security is to wring far more work out of our energy. Modest improvements in the efficiency of cars and buildings could more than eliminate US oil imports in this decade -- before a power plant or synfuel plant ordered now could deliver any energy whatever, and at a tenth of its cost.

But efficient energy use also makes failures more graceful and correctable. If the heating system fails in January in your superinsulated house in Minnesota , you won't know it for weeks, and then only because the indoor temperature will slowly drift down from 72 degrees to 62 degrees or at worst the upper 50s -- but no lower, so neither you nor your pipes can freeze. The body heat from a few neighbors seeking refuge will bring the house back up to 72 degrees; extra children will overheat it.

Likewise, in a 50-mile-per-gallon car you could continue normal driving for weeks just on the gas in its own tank. A comparably efficient transportation system could run for a year on the oil stored here and there between wellhead and gas pump -- whereas today, if a major pipeline to a refinery is cut, refining shuts down in a few days. Efficient energy use can thus stretch stored fuel long enough to fix what's broken or to improvise new supplies.

More diverse, dispersed, renewable energy sources can improve normal reliability and be virtually uninterruptible. A man who powers his Northern Plains house with wind recently reported that he was watching the evening news on television and saw that his whole area was blacked out. He went outside and looked. Sure enough, all his neighbors' lights were off. So he came back in and watched TV some more to see when his neighbor's lights would come back on.

Decentralized supplies saved Holyoke, Mass. from the 1965 Northeast blackout. A quick-thinking engineer cut off the city from the collapsing grid and ran it instead on a local gas turbine. The money saved by not having to black out Holyoke paid off the capital cost of the power plant in four hours. Likewise, when a 1980 thunderstorm blacked out West Chicago, a gas station which, hours earlier, had installed its own bank of solar cells was the only station pumping gas.

Millions of individuals and thousands of communities are already mobilizing their own resorces to save money, stop the hemorrhage of energy dollars out of the local economy, and insure against energy cutoffs. As a result, since 1979 the US has gotten more than a hundred times as much new energy from savings as from expanded supplies, and more new supply from renewables than from any or all nonrenewables. As the President's corporate socialism erodes true energy security, local initiatives and market economics are starting to restore it -- piece by piece, from the bottom up.

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