I’m Virginian by birth, Southern by the Grace of God, and Washingtonian by choice. But with Earth Day upon us, I realize the way that I live defines me as an American.
By Tyler Suiters
I drive just about everywhere. I recycle most of my trash, but don’t go out of my way to buy sustainable products. I definitely want my electricity to come from cleaner sources but…I can’t quite bring myself to pay extra for what my utility calls “environmental benefits.” And as I travel the world, covering the ways we get our energy and change our planet, I realize that by acting this way I am utterly and thoroughly American.
Energy is one of the most popular products here in Consumer Nation. We have monolithic TV’s that suck power even when they’re turned off, Imperial-Cruiser-sized SUV’s that get single-digit MPG’s, and palatial homes we chill in the Summer and toast in the Winter. Easy to see why we’ve always been the world’s hungriest energy consumer and, not coincidentally, the world’s biggest carbon emitter (the stuff that comes from burning coal or oil, or wood for that matter, and does crummy things to our environment).
Always, that is, until the last decade. That’s when we were eclipsed by the People’s Republic of China. In both categories.
Yep. More and more Chinese are becoming more and more American.
On the other hand, the way China conducts its energy policy (heck, the fact that it even has an energy policy) is unlike our American approach. When Beijing decides to lead the world in solar energy or plant wind turbines in the China Sea, there’s no legislature or green group or Not-In-My-Back-Yard band of neighbors to offer substantial resistance. Then again, cheap labor, dubious environmental standards, and xenophobic trade policies do have their drawbacks.
Not to say that size matters. Iceland has about half as many people as Vermont living in a country roughly the size of Kentucky. And in 2009 I was one of them … OK, for only a few days. Just a couple of decades ago, Iceland relied almost entirely on imported oil to generate its electricity. Since then the country, home of the world’s oldest parliamentary institution, has completely turned around its energy policy (there’s that foreign term, again) and turned to its own bounty of resources.
Last year the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption grounded European airline flights for weeks, firmly reminding the world that Iceland is a volcanic island. The country uses that fact, both its geography and topography, to its advantage. Geothermal energy, tapping the heat that courses under Iceland’s surface; and hydroelectricity, turning turbines with water flow charging down volcanic peaks to the sea; they power the country’s homes and heat its water. Iceland now gets almost 100% of its electricity by taking advantage of what nature has to offer, resources that aren’t imported and cause no significant carbon emissions and will never run out. Almost 100%!
The United States’ percentage of renewable electricity? Last year we hit a record level…about 10%.
Israel, however, has no such luxury. There just isn’t all that much Earth, Wind, and Fire (Biomass, Wind, and Geothermal in renewable energy circles) within its borders. But the country does have one remarkable domestic resource, one that may trump everything else on the clean energy table. Ingenuity.
During an assignment in Israel earlier this year, I met engineers and innovators; dreamers and designers; financiers and fatalists; all of them trying to improve Israel’s national security by making their country less dependent on imported energy. Why the premium? Just jump over to Google Maps and take a look at Israel’s neighbors. Or search the headlines from the Egyptian uprisings, which cut off almost half of Israel’s natural gas supply for more than a month.
The results of all this Israeli innovation? Solar panels that use missile-tracking technology to follow the Sun’s path. Concrete blocks that support offshore wind turbines and act as artificial coral reefs. Hydroelectricity generated by water flowing through city pipes. All of them ideas their creators expect to come to commercial life here in the US. Or in China.
So on this edition of Earth Day, a decidedly American creation, let’s try to act a little less like Americans. And blending the right mix of international innovation into a coherent US energy policy could mean the benefits for our planet…will last a lot longer than just one day.
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