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Once-kooky ideas about energy starting to make sense

October 12, 2008

A little bit of time can make an awful lot of difference. It wasn't so very long ago that we were stifling a chuckle when the Washington County Commissioners were bouncing around new, alternative energy ideas, such as burning methane produced by landfills.

Now, everything has changed about everything, and all you can say about the commissioners' green energy initiative is - the sooner the better.

With proper leadership, we may look back on the global financial meltdown as the best thing that ever happened to us. Before, we knew there were a lot of things we ought to do. Now we know there are a lot of things we have to do. It may take a crisis of epic proportion to force our hand.

That leadership is going to have to come from the top, but it is also going to have to come from every level of government, and every citizen. When known, wild-eyed progressives like Commissioner Bill Wivell say that green energy is "definitely the way to go," you realize the seas are changing - which may not be a bad thing.

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The free-wheeling credit industry is getting the blame for today's financial unpleasantness, which is fair enough, but energy certainly has played a hand.

Many mortgage holders walking a fine line might have been able to squeak by, were it not for the price of fuel - and food and other goods transported by that fuel - going through the roof. A family budget may have increased by a couple hundred dollars or more from the time they signed their name on a housing note.

If you're just squeezing into a home to begin with, there is no wiggle room when the price of everyday necessities spikes.

If the financial crisis is doing us a backhanded favor, the power companies with their rate hikes and transmission lines rammed down our throats may be doing us one as well. In the days of cheap electricity there was little incentive to look elsewhere. Now, even given the high start-up costs of alternative-energy infrastructure, the investment is starting to make sense.

Wind farms appear likely to start popping up off the Atlantic seaboard, the Great Lakes and high mountain ridges. What just a couple of years ago seemed to be a kooky, impractical pipe dream now has investors jumping in right and left.

Commissioners are correct in seeing energy in terms of a number of small sources - wind, landfill, what have you. Where we have to come to rely on mammoth, coal- or gas-fired generators to meet the energy needs of large blocks of the population, tomorrow's solutions appear to be appearing in the form of an energy buffet, in which a number of decentralized sources meet the needs of the whole.

America has always been at its best when small, smart and aggressive innovators are allowed to compete for markets. It's always been at its worst when monolithic corporations get fat and happy and sit on their hands.

The golden age of automobiles occurred when companies like Hudson, Nash and Packard were still on the scene. (Who remembers that the 1940 Hudson Deluxe Touring Sedan got 29 miles to the gallon?) It took the consolidation into the Big Three to bring the American automobile industry to the brink of collapse.

Some of these decentralized energy sources may seem too small to matter. One megawatt from the landfill would power 650 homes. But start putting three or four of these small sources together and suddenly they have a significant impact.

That's why commissioners are wise to listen to any and all proposals, including one from Bluewater Wind, which is looking to sell electricity generated by offshore wind farms.

This isn't so much about price, at least not at first. Bringing new energy sources to fruition will not be cheap. It's only the skyrocketing petroleum prices that have made them competitive in the first place.

But several truths should be kept in mind. Oil and gas supplies are limited. Wind and refuse are not. Wind and the sun cannot be hoarded by unfriendly nations and apportioned out to us at dictated prices. We will never go to war with another country over wind. And, while I don't know enough to make an intelligent statement on global warming, I do know that the new energy sources are a far safer bet.

But the greatest truth is that the feet of fossil fuel are planted firmly in the cement of the past century. It may take another century to wean ourselves completely, but an era is all but over - or at least we can see the end from here. We're fortunate to live in a county where our leaders realize this.

The financial crisis has proved that things we never thought could happen, can happen. It's taught us the need for flexibility and the need for openness to a new way of doing things.

Painful as it may be for now, this wrenching change in our thought processes may prove to be our saving grace.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. You can e-mail him at timr@herald.mail.com

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