WHEN I WAS A KID growing up on the northern outskirts of Denver, Colorado, my father and I spent part of a summer on a demolition project in our darkened basement. The target was a square tank of reinforced concrete. Ten by ten, its walls were five feet high and a foot thick. The fortresslike enclosure, far more solidly constructed than the rest of the wood-frame house in which it sat, was built to store water warmed by a roof-mounted, solar-heating array.
We didn’t need solar-heated water—our natural gas heating system worked just fine—and my parents, a firefighter and a legal secretary, didn’t have the money to install the rest of the system, which called for pricy rooftop solar panels, anyway. With two bedrooms for three kids, what we felt we needed was space. And so my dad and I worked late into the night to dismantle the tank, battering the wall with a sixteen-pound sledge, worrying it with a jackhammer, taking out, piece by piece, a vestige of an idea whose time, it seemed, had quickly come and gone.
The rest of the houses in the neighborhood were similarly semi-equipped for solar heating systems. It’s hard to imagine it now—a tract development of small wooden houses with such a symbol of sustainability built within them. As it happens, the subdivision was constructed during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent energy crisis. Perhaps it was the hours-long lines at gas stations or the inflamed language of the ayatollah that drove the developer to embrace renewables. Or maybe it was the solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed atop the White House in 1979—ones that, several years later, President Ronald Reagan would remove. But the solar transformation envisioned by the developer was only scantly realized. By the time we moved out of that subdivision in the mid-1990s, maybe one in twenty houses bore panels on their rooftops.
Indeed, the small-scale act of domestic destruction in our basement was concurrent with a larger land-devouring push for fossil fuels across the country and world. Denver’s power plants, which burned copious amounts of coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, produced affordable electricity (and contributed mightily to the city’s infamous “brown cloud” that frequently hovered over downtown). And, of course, relatively cheap natural gas continued to heat our home after our decision to nix the solar heating system entirely. Instead of mass shortages, as predicted, the country wallowed for a decade and a half in cheap oil, imported mostly from the Middle East. Over that same period, our finished basement, which included a new bedroom for me—a sweet deal in terms of teenage privacy—filled up with stuff.
I often wonder about how ad hoc decisions like these, repeated by thousands of individuals guided by larger and often subtle forces, have reverberated across the country. Was a renewable renaissance unwittingly jackhammered out of existence by everyday citizens? Did market forces and government subsidies for dirty energy drive us like coal miners into the basement, hammers in hand? Are there similar forces at work today?
All these questions are linked to one larger, more fundamental question: do we even have a national energy policy? A good place to begin answering that question today is on the White House’s “Energy, Climate Change and Our Environment” webpage. “The President has taken unprecedented action to build the foundation for a clean energy economy, tackle the issue of climate change, and protect our environment,” reads one prominent pull quote. But then a scroll down reveals two graphs, one showing rising U.S. domestic oil production and another showing the concurrent decline in foreign imports. The key initiatives—“building a clean energy economy” while boosting domestic oil and gas production—are confusing, even self-annihilating, perhaps explaining the puzzlement that ripples down to the individual energy consumer. Part of the problem is the seeming inability of our leaders to imagine a future beyond petroleum. Compounding this lack of imagination is the tendency for policies to be reset on four-year election cycles.
But if there has been one defining principle of U.S. energy policy—one parroted enthusiastically by Democrats and Republicans alike—it’s “energy independence.” Though the term has gained cachet in recent years, Richard Nixon first uttered it in 1973 during the first Middle Eastern oil embargo, when he announced “Project Independence”—his initiative to unhitch the U.S. from foreign oil and achieve “energy self-sufficiency” by 1980. This desire for freedom from foreign oil was later bolstered by our nation’s reaction to 9/11. Energy independence presupposes that it is the origin of our oil that is the key dilemma facing the country, and not the combustion of fossil fuel itself. This outlook has transformed our energy policy into a way of quantifying our energy demands and ensuring that we meet those demands by whatever means necessary.
To visualize the costs of such an outlook, we need to get out from behind the abstract metrics—sterile figures of barrels pumped, miles of pipeline laid, gallons consumed—and into places scarred in pursuit of energy independence: the North Dakota prairie transformed into a great city of fire by thousands of gas flares; the Central Valley of California where pumpjacks probe for tar in century-old oil fields; or a remote, high plateau in Utah where deep gouges mark the nation’s first commercial tar sands operation.
No one is safe from this rush as urban sprawl—a pattern of growth predicated on the illusion of infinite oil—collides with the new oil fields themselves. In places like Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Denton, Texas, and Longmont, Colorado, drill rigs have sprouted beside neighborhoods. Last July, a train carrying explosive crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field—site of the U.S.’s most frenetic hydrocarbon rush—derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, leveling buildings and killing forty-seven. My own home in the East Bay hills of California overlooks Chevron’s Richmond refinery, one of the largest on the West Coast. One cloudless August afternoon two years ago, the facility exploded violently, casting out a black cloud that blotted out the sun and rained poison on residents nearby.
The gigantism of the enterprise—in which goliath companies dredge huge quantities of hydrocarbons from the planet, and individuals are reduced to bit roles such as switch flipper, gas pumper, rate payer—all but assures that self-destructive policies will continue to chart our energy future. But is there another way?
TO UNDERSTAND how the myth of energy independence emboldens boosters of extreme forms of energy, it’s helpful to consider a remote mountain range in the western United States. It’s no secret that Canada, which strip mines hundreds of millions of tons of tar sands in northern Alberta every year, has replaced Saudi Arabia as our main oil supplier. But fewer know that there’s a far larger and potentially more destructive pool of hydrocarbons trapped under the arid, rugged plateaus where Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming meet.
Not to be confused with shale oil—deep deposits of oil trapped in “tight” shale deposits of the sort found in the Bakken—oil shale is a rock embedded with a waxy organic material called kerogen. It’s often referred to as the “rock that burns,” a reference said to date back to the Old West, when cowboys would ring their campfires with oil shale only to find that the rocks themselves had burst into flame. Today, it’s the sheer metrics of the stuff that has lit a fire in the minds of the new oil shale cowboys. Locked in the layers of the Green River Formation, according to the United States Geological Survey, are 1.5 trillion barrels of oil, or three times the amount found in Saudi Arabia.
But there’s a catch. In nature, kerogen needs a few million more years in the pressure cooker of the earth’s crust to become oil. Oil companies have learned to compress geological time using copious amounts of energy and water. The late environmentalist Randy Udall called the burning of coal or natural gas to extract energy from oil shale the equivalent of “feeding steak to the dog and eating his Alpo.” Not surprisingly, excitement for oil shale tracks with the per barrel price of oil.
A couple years ago, to learn more about the lobby pushing for this earth-devouring, water-guzzling energy source, I traveled to Golden, Colorado, for the annual Oil Shale Symposium at the Colorado School of Mines. During the opening statements, Samantha Julian, director of Utah’s Office of Energy Development, criticized legal challenges to proposed tar sands and oil shale projects. One attendee, the owner of a small energy company, asked Julian about environmental protests over tar sands at the state capitol. Julian declared there was nothing to fear. The Beehive State was unequivocally open for business, she said, and the protestors had all “flown in from California.”
Despite news of the possible suspension of proposed commercial oil shale and tar sands leases from the Bush-era Energy Policy Act of 2005, the industry’s leading boosters remained optimistic. Jeremy Boak, a School of Mines professor and conference emcee, challenged those tempted to repeat the standard criticisms leveled against oil shale—the huge water and energy requirements, the technological impracticality, the vast mining footprints. “Anyone who repeats these points is either ignorant or engaging in willful deception,” said Boak with a noticeable catch in his voice. At one point, Boak asked a panel of company reps about what they most wished for, “their oil shale Christmas list” as he called it. One representative from the Estonian oil shale firm Enefit proclaimed bluntly that he hoped the price of a barrel of oil would never again drop below one hundred dollars.
Outside the hall, oil shale companies peddled their wares. At Enefit’s table, tiny pieces of oil shale lay in a small plastic fish bowl, like after-dinner candies. In one jar were bonbons of brownish rock. A small metal tag glued to each piece explained that the fragments were oil shale mined in Estonia, the same material burned in goliath power plants supplying 85 percent of the country’s electricity.
Indeed, Estonia is perhaps closer than any nation to achieving actual energy independence, and is the only country in the world that gets the majority of its energy from oil shale. Estonia mines and burns more than 30 billion pounds of shale annually—more than ten tons for every man, woman, and child in this Baltic nation twice the size of New Jersey. Whether or not that independence has translated to marked improvements in the lives of Estonians is questionable. The country’s singular reliance on oil shale has come at a staggering environmental cost. The country’s rural eastern half is cratered with massive mines and wastewater lakes and littered with heaps of toxic ash. The wholesale burning of oil shale has also made it one of the largest per capita carbon emitters in Europe.
In another jar on Enefit’s table were small fragments of Utah’s distinctive “mahogany” oil shale. Denser than the Estonian rock, each piece was a dark gray cut through with thin white bands. I took a square piece in my hand, struck by the rock’s beauty. It was slightly slick to the touch and had the faint whiff of petroleum. Enefit had mined the rock on a remote plateau overlooking the White River, an operation that many see as the great hope for reinvigorating the U.S. oil shale industry. Unlike the power plants in Estonia, which simply burn the material like coal to generate electricity, Enefit’s Utah operation would convert the shale to crude oil, which could then be further refined into gasoline.
Circulating among the larger, successful energy companies were grizzled veterans looking for a shot at redemption. At close to seven feet tall, western Colorado resident Roger Day was the most conspicuous booster of oil shale in attendance. An elder statesman of oil shale, Day profited during the rock’s brief heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s but got out of the business, he explained, after the “Black Sunday” collapse in May 1982. Triggered by falling oil prices that rendered oil shale uneconomical, Exxon shuttered its Colony Project, wiping out twenty-one hundred jobs virtually overnight and precipitating the rapid collapse of the Western Slope oil shale industry.
Roger Day is once again promoting oil shale. He serves as vice president of a small oil shale company exploring so-called in situ technology, which uses massive underground heaters to trigger the conversion of kerogen to oil. “Honestly, it was hard for me to get excited again about oil shale after the Obama Administration took over,” he said wistfully.
Day said it was the scale of the resource that has brought him back. I mentioned the inevitable land impacts, water requirements, and carbon emissions. “I’m not going to debate you on that,” he replied. “If we’re going to keep burning oil then we need to consider oil shale. It needs to be in the mix. Period.”
BY COMPARISON, there are various nations where energy policies have fused with aggressive carbon-reduction policies. Sweden’s På väg mot ett oljefritt Sverige (“Making Sweden an oil-free society”) seeks to accomplish that mission by 2020. Perhaps the most audacious proposal under Sweden’s oil-free rubric comes from the social-liberal Center Party, which proposed a ban on gas-powered cars by 2030. And last year, Finland announced it would be cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.
It’s not only European countries that are taking action. The world’s largest CO2 emitter, China—where emissions jumped by a staggering 44 percent between 2007 and 2012—has nonetheless made serious gestures toward curbing its prodigious air pollution and carbon emissions. It invested more than $52 billion in clean energy technology in 2011 alone, making it the world’s largest single investor in renewables.
Even the petro-monarchy of Saudi Arabia is getting into the act. In 2012, Prince Turki al-Faisal announced plans to install fifty-four gigawatts of solar energy capacity by 2032, a figure that represents about half of all solar capacity worldwide today. “Oil is more precious for us underground than as a fuel source,” Faisal has said of the plan. “If we can get to the point where we can replace fossil fuels and use oil to produce other products that are useful, that would be very good for the world.”
Of all the countries that have set forth sweeping climate-focused energy policies, Germany may offer the best model for the U.S. Like the U.S., Germany has a large and highly developed industrial economy, one that could be stimulated by repurposing the national energy system. Under its Energiewende, or “energy transformation,” Germany is seeking to satisfy its energy demands, while also acknowledging larger planetary obligations.
The seeds of the German plan were sown three years before reunification, when Chancellor Helmut Kohl declared climate change his country’s greatest environmental challenge. In 1991, the German parliament, or Bundestag, established a special investigative commission that recommended the first carbon emissions targets: a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide and methane from 1990 levels by 2005.
As with Finland’s goal, the German plan calls for 80 percent of the country’s electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2050, a target the nation is well on its way to achieving. On an average day, between 10 and 50 percent of Germany’s energy is supplied by renewables (though on one particularly sunny and windy spring day last year, the overall contribution surged to nearly 75 percent). Much of this electricity is generated not from utility-scale solar plants but from smaller, distributed projects such as small-scale wind farms and rooftop arrays.
Much of the Energiewende’s success is not attributable to a proliferation of technology so much as a triumph of politics. A recent poll found that two-thirds of the German public is in favor of it. Part of its popularity across the political spectrum may derive from its economic success. As of 2011, Germany’s renewable energy sector in aggregate boasted more than twice the number of jobs as the coal and conventional oil sectors combined.
This is not to say the transition has been without serious, even insidious, problems. Ironically, as Germany’s renewable energy generation capacity has grown, so too have its carbon emissions. This is, in large part, due to the country’s nuclear-power phaseout following the Fukushima disaster, which has in turn led to increased energy generation from lignite-burning power plants. Recent tensions with Russia, which supplies Germany with more than a third of its natural gas, have also contributed to this trend.
And yet, the Germans remain undeterred. Last year, in spite of the troubles, the government upped the ante, authorizing increases in the targets for renewables from 40 to 45 percent by the year 2025, and 55 to 60 percent by the year 2035.
WHILE MUCH OF CALIFORNIA, like the rest of the U.S. today, is reckoning with the fossil fuel–heavy push toward energy independence, there are also glimmers of an American Energiewende in the Golden State. Although the state continues to encourage oil drilling, in 2006 governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the California Global Warming Solutions Act mandating an 80 percent cut in emissions from 1990 levels by 2050—the same targets required by Germany.
If there is an epicenter of California’s effort to meet those emission goals, it lies in the Mojave Desert. Over the past decade, the Mojave has been the focal point of numerous proposals for utility-scale solar projects. The remote Ivanpah solar power plant, on the California-Nevada border, sprawls across thirty-five hundred acres like a shimmering sea of silicon. The plant’s concentric rings of heliostat mirrors are aimed at a 450-foot collector tower, which contains massive boilers heated by the focused light rays. The project has emerged as a controversial symbol of the outsized scale of the solar industry’s ambitions in the desert—nearly four hundred megawatts of energy will be transmitted hundreds of miles across the desert to light the neon arteries of Las Vegas and the alluvial sprawl of Los Angeles. The fact that the concentrated light rays reflected from the heliostat mirrors fry hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of birds in midflight every year doesn’t help, either.
There are, however, gestures beyond the land-devouring footprints of utility-scale solar. Local energy has distinct advantages over remote, utility-scale projects: transmission losses from, say, urban rooftop photovoltaic arrays are essentially nil, and their distributed-energy systems are less prone to disruption than highly centralized systems.
One place pursuing this local-energy vision is Lancaster, California, an otherwise unremarkable city of 155,000, situated an hour north of Los Angeles in a vast sere basin on the northern slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains. Led by its animated mayor, a Republican named Rex Parris, the city has embarked upon an ambitious “net zero” plan. The goal: to make Lancaster the world’s first 100 percent solar-powered city.
The immaculately coiffed Parris, a personal injury attorney whose ads are a common sight on Los Angeles television, has been an outspoken critic of the current Republican party’s relentless maligning of environmental protection and renewable energy. He well remembers Richard Nixon’s creation of the EPA, as well as his support of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. “I may be a Republican, but I’m not stupid,” Parris told the New York Times when asked about his party’s knee-jerk resistance to alternative energy.
Like Germany’s Kohl in the 1980s, Parris has declared climate change one of the most pressing issues of our time. And he and his staff have found that the transformation to renewable energy is compatible with conservatism’s two most sacred principles: profit and job creation. “We are running the power authority as a business—it is meant as a revenue stream for the city,” said Heather Swan, a projects director for the Lancaster Power Authority. To date, the solarization effort has created more than 1,000 local jobs. The 32,000 solar panels installed at 25 school sites across Lancaster will reportedly save the district $325,000 per year in electricity bills. “Traditionally we’ve been a sales and property tax city,” Swan continued. “That comes and goes with the market. As good stewards for the public, we need to stabilize those revenues.”
Lancaster has chosen to focus on smaller, simpler distributed energy projects such as rooftop solar panels and solar parking canopies. There are some small solar farms as well, but unlike Ivanpah they have not been built on pristine tracts of desert, hundreds of miles away, but rather on retired farmland and former industrial sites on the outskirts of town.
To completely offset the city’s energy use, Lancaster officials say they must install an additional 215 megawatts of solar-energy capacity—roughly equivalent to one-third of the output of an average fossil fuel–burning power plant. To meet that goal, the city is in the midst of a flurry of permitting and construction. It’s approaching 165 megawatts. According to Swan, the city plans to reach its goal next year.
If every city and town in the sun-splashed Antelope Valley acted with the same urgency as Lancaster—installing roughly 1.4 kilowatts of distributed solar capacity for each of its half-million residents—the region could generate more than seven hundred megawatts of energy. With added planning and coordination, the U.S. Southwest could anchor a U.S. Energiewende, easily supplying more solar capacity than all of Germany.
Even in areas where the sun doesn’t shine as brightly, Lancaster’s decisive local action is reproducible. Germany, after all, doesn’t have any deserts. A report issued last year by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that current renewable energy technology was “more than adequate” to supply 80 percent of U.S. energy. A recent report by Stanford and Cornell researchers published in the journal Energy Policy, found that New York State could free itself entirely from fossil fuels by 2050 through a combination of solar, wind, and water. (The “water” part of the equation consists of traditional hydroelectric power generated at existing dams as well as electricity generated from geothermal, tidal, and wave power.)
The trend is already well underway. Wind energy led all new electricity-generating capacity installed in the U.S. in 2012, and represents 31 percent of all new capacity installed over the last five years. Perhaps the greatest testament to the practicality of renewables is that the U.S. military—the largest single energy user in the world—seeks to generate as much as 25 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025.
Great benefits can also be derived from improving efficiency. In the U.S., 39 percent of all energy used (and 38 percent of carbon emissions) comes from the heating and cooling of buildings. That proportion is even greater in dense cities like Chicago and New York, where buildings account for 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and where large populations live in aging housing stocks with wide seasonal temperature variations. Much of what the Northeast lacks in sun and wind could be gained in efficiency improvements such as mandating energy-efficient boilers, windows, and insulation.
Which is to say, the energy transition inevitably leads us back home.
INSPIRED BY Lancaster’s no-frills energy transition, my wife and I have decided to begin our own energy transformation. In addition to our view of the Chevron refinery, our house has intense late afternoon sun exposure—an ideal spot for solar panels.
And yet, we find ourselves in a similar financial predicament as did my parents all those years ago when my father and I descended into the basement to batter the walls of the solar tank. Even though the cost of photovoltaic panels continues to decline, my young family can’t afford to purchase them either. For now, our only option is to lease. Financial scolds will shout that the deal is a loser—namely that renting panels means forfeiting a sizeable federal tax credit. But it’s a transaction we enter willingly. Even if we merely break even, every dollar we pay to rent solar panels is a dollar divested from fossil fuels.
Other defeatists will argue that small gestures such as these are superficial on a global level. Without sweeping legislation—rigorously enforced limits on greenhouse gas emissions, say, or a carbon tax—they insist all smaller efforts are doomed. Perhaps. But how much longer can we wait for decisive action from our elected leaders? Granted, our small system will be little more than a daub of mortar in the new ramparts of clean energy. And, to be sure, a rooftop solar system by no means obviates us from our obligation to push for sensible policies and reforms. But it seems like the beginnings of a common sense “domestic” energy plan to us.
Energy independence, as it’s currently defined, is a worrisome principle upon which to base a national energy policy. But it has had one unintended benefit: showing us in stark relief here on the American landscape the world-eating costs of our way of life. You can ignore the signs: the spars of drill rigs now visible from neighborhoods across the country, or the oil trains filled with Bakken crude rattling through hundreds of towns, or the ever-growing pool of carbon accumulating in the atmosphere. You can hammer away at small-scale transformations to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, calling them bourgeois exercises in assuaging consumer guilt. You can remain holed up in the basement of imagination.
But my family isn’t going to live in that darkness any longer.