The quest for energy security: long, slow, increasingly successful

For decades, energy security was a major concern to consumers, businesses, and governments. There was no magic solution to the problem. Instead, persistent effort and incremental improvement made the difference.

Photo illustration by Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Have you noticed this pattern when dealing with a complex, intractable problem? You work through all the variables – some of which you control, most of which you don’t. You furrow your brow, break a dozen pencils, hit your head against multiple walls, and frequently drift into magical thinking about a breakthrough that wipes the problem out.

Even if the best minds of a generation keep at it, the problem persists. Then one day, you look around and realize that the problem is gone.

That’s the way the energy crisis seemed. After almost a century of abundant fossil fuel, supplies tightened in the early 1970s, prices soared, economies staggered, and that looked like the future as far as the eye could see. Jimmy Carter called the energy crisis the “moral equivalent of war.” Oh sure, maybe someone could dream up a breakthrough – the “cold fusion” device that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced in 1989, for instance. But like the “Mr. Fusion” engine in the movie “Back to the Future,” that was fantasy. Year after year, the energy problem remained unsolved.

Have you looked around lately? You already know that hydraulic fracturing, while controversial, has revolutionized gas and oil extraction in the United States and other parts of the world. Solar arrays and wind turbines are popping up everywhere. There are promising new nuclear technologies under development. And a Monitor cover story, David Unger shows you an especially unheralded energy revolution that has crept up on us.

It sounds a little dull to call it by its traditional name: conservation. This is conservation with brains. Some call it the “enernet” revolution because it is driven by a combination of Internet, microelectronics, more-efficient devices, and fast feedback of real-time data. The result: dramatic savings in electricity and fossil fuel for businesses and consumers. And it is a trend that is only in its infancy. Tech, data, and energy management improve continuously.

This is big. And it is big precisely because it isn’t magical. It is the application of smart technology to everything from power grids to home thermostats. By networking these devices, data can be rapidly analyzed and energy precisely deployed. One vivid example: lights that come on in a warehouse just as a forklift is rolling by. Why light the whole building throughout the day?

The energy-efficiency revolution is the way most progressive revolutions unfold. There were no parting clouds and trumpet blasts. Millions of people applied themselves, swapped ideas, combined and recombined them, tested, measured, learned – and then rinsed and repeated. While some had noble motives, self-interest has done the heavy lifting: Big money is being saved through intelligent energy management.

So what other complex, intractable problems might be making imperceptible progress? Humanity has a long list: climate change; economic stagnation; disease of body and mind; religious intolerance; oppression based on race, sex, ethnicity, or place of origin. There’s no reason to expect such problems to be solved overnight. There’s every reason to keep at the problem solving – and to expect that one day we’ll look up and notice that today’s overwhelming worries have all but disappeared.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@CSMonitor.com.

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