First off, let’s get one thing straight. I take a back seat to no one when it comes to an appreciation for the transformative power of cheap energy.
Sure, re-shoring has been a factor in helping bring about this renaissance in U.S. manufacturing, as are increased costs abroad and a spike in foreign worker demands. But all those things get dwarfed (and then some) by the glut of suddenly affordable energy, particularly oil and natural gas, we now have at our disposal.
So you’d think I’d be an unabashed, unapologetic and dyed-in-the-wool proponent of all things cheap energy, right? And that I’d be so mad I’d be spitting nickels that last week Congress killed the Keystone pipeline that would have brought even more cheap oil from rural Canada to refineries in Texas.
Well, you see, that’s where things start to get a little tricky. Because every time I feel I want to push all my chips toward the center of the table and declare myself “All in” on cheap, domestically controlled energy, the other side of my brain starts chirping.
Because while cheap energy means so many great things for U.S. manufacturers, at least in the short term, those great things, it seems, all seem to come at a price.
For example, cheap energy will mean manufacturers and heavy industry in this country remains wedded to a 20th Century fuel source and remain that much less inclined to research and develop cleaner, more sustainable sources of industrial power, including wind, solar and nuclear – all of which will ensure not only a healthier and more environmentally balanced planet for our children and theirs, but thousands of high-paying, high-skilled jobs in the process.
Cheap energy as its now defined will also mean we continue to burn fossil fuels, continue to destroy what little of this earth’s pristine beauty and wilderness still remain, continue to dump billions of tons of carbon into oceans and the atmosphere, and continue to put our planet in harm’s way, causing it (and us) irreparable damage.
(And, yes Virginia, I am living, breathing proof it is possible to ferociously embrace the tenets of capitalism while still believing in the unimpeachable science behind climate change.)
I call it the yin and yang of 21st Century American energy.
But that’s only one such instance in which some aspect of our industrial power equation is accompanied by a dual cause and effect.
Consider just a few such ironies as they relate to our current energy situation:
- In a day and age when the call for lower taxes is so strong it threatens to drown out all other debate, now more than ever we must spend billions, if not trillions of federal money to rebuild our country’s infrastructure, the most critical aspect of which is a rapidly decaying and woefully inadequate power grid.
- The established, traditional power companies that are paying to maintain our nation’s power grid do not get one dime of financial help from all the start up and alternative energy power concerns now springing up from coast to coast, virtually all of whom rely heavily on the very same power that grid makes possible – and at the same time those concerns are selling power directly to (or stealing customers from) the traditional companies whose grid makes their very existence possible.
- The hundreds of startup companies that have grown up around the concept of fracking are now mining massive amounts of cheap shale oil and natural gas. Yet those same companies have also started to realize they could get a higher return if they sell their product overseas, so the call is growing louder and louder for these American companies to be able to sell much of the oil and gas they’re fracking to our competitors around the globe.
- And while that overseas market will greatly expand the size of the market for those start up fracking concerns, those entrepreneur-driven companies are even now finding themselves competing in a hopelessly fickle and extremely volatile global marketplace. As a result, many are slowly coming to realize that the same cheap energy they helped make possible is cutting deeply into their margins, threatening to place them under a pile of debt, while putting many at risk of being destroyed by the very thing they created.
- Just as it seems we’ve weathered the storm of China trying to flood the U.S. market with cheap, Chinese-made solar panels, and solar power has reached a point at which it’s not only practical, but profitable for American companies to produce and sell, our national appetite for solar has come to a screeching halt by the sudden glut of cheap (but environmentally devastating) fossil fuel.
And I could go on and on. But suffice it to say, to feel strongly about any one side of almost any current energy issue is to turn a blind eye to the full picture and the long range view.
What this all means is that, even for someone like myself, who has thrived in the open marketplace and who recognizes and respects the wisdom in that marketplace, the time has come for the government to intervene in the areas of exploring, processing, creating and marketing the energy that fuels this economy.
We need, in other words, a solid and well-developed federal energy policy, one we all buy into and support.
We need a smarter, rebuilt power grid.
We need cohesion when it comes to utilizing existing power sources and a financial and technological safety net when it comes to developing new ones.
We need long range planning more than short-term fixes and profit motives.
And we need to understand that nothing in the business of energy exists in a vacuum. Our planet and our grandchildren must have a say in how business is conducted. After all, we’re not the future. They are.
And all one has to do is to consider at any one variable in today’s current power equation, try to (if only for a moment) look beyond the politics of self interest and the length of one’s own nose, to see that as a country we no longer need motivation or additional profit incentives. We’ve got plenty of those.
What we need now is a plan.