The (non)idiot’s guide to energy

 

We all know what a carbon footprint is. But for those ready to go beyond Global Warming 101, energy specialist Carol Sue Tombari has condensed our national conversation about energy decisions into a mercifully compact and readable book called Power of the People: America's New Electricity Choices. Tombari, the manager of stakeholder relations at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., writes from what might be called the Amory Lovins school: She extols the easy gains of energy efficiencies and the strong potential of alternative energy sources.

Buildings can already be designed and constructed with potential energy efficiencies of 60 percent, she notes, and solar power is likely to become cheaper than coal- or gas-fired in the near to mid-term. Once transmission lines are built, wind-generated electricity from remote locations can provide more power to the cities.

So what's holding us back? We don't act because we're not charged the full cost of burning fossil fuels, what economists call the "externalities." Those greenhouse gases and other costs to our environment need to be taken fully into account. The marketplace is imperfect, Tombari says, hindered by government regulations that tilt the playing field toward carbon sources. "Anyone who tells you there's a free market of energy is either fibbing or has been duped by the self-serving babble of the entrenched energy industries that avoid competition by barring others from market entry," she writes.

She saves her tartest observations for the electrical utilities. Their sheer size - the largest industry in the United States - and technological complexity have made them opaque to normal scrutiny. She calls upon government regulators to induce a broad change. Because utilities' earnings are based on the sale of electricity, they constantly seek to ramp up their generation of electricity - and burn yet more coal and gas. Instead, utility profits should be linked to the delivery of energy services. If it's 100 degrees in the shade, we want to be cooled, and most consumers don't really care if that's accomplished by running an electric-powered air conditioner or by tapping the earth's constant 56-degree temperature.

Tombari's tone is hopeful but also slightly angry in her call for "urgent evolution." If we have no silver bullets in our energy arsenal, she says, we have plenty of silver, maybe even platinum, buckshot. What are we waiting for?