DULUTH NEWS: "Earth, not Y2K, the right reason to stockpile renewable energy"

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Earth, not Y2K, the right reason to stockpile renewable energy

Andrew Slade

January 9th, 2000

As I write this month's column, it is New Year's Day and people are still nursing their hangovers from last night's celebrations.

There is another kind of hangover that lots of people might be having right now. This morning, all around the world, people are looking at their piles of Y2K survival supplies and wondering what to do with them now.

For the last few years, there has been this unintentional alliance between environmentalists and survivalists. Where the environmentalist is concerned first about the continuation of ecosystems through the next millennium, the survivalist is concerned first about the continuation of him or herself. But they found some significant overlap in, of all things, renewable energy.

Renewable energy is energy that comes from sources which naturally replenish themselves. Wind power and solar power are the best known examples. When practiced on the household scale, renewable energy enables people to function ``off the grid'' -- that is, not connected to the interstate network of electric supply lines.

For the environmentalist, this is part of simple, low-impact living, a chance to live closer to nature and her forces. For the survivalists, renewable energy was to be the answer to their dilemma of how to survive when Y2K knocks the power grid out.

I'm on the mailing list for an environmental catalog from a company called Real Goods, which specializes in home renewable energy products. For the last year or so, the catalog has been increasingly full of thinly veiled survivalist references like ``independence'' and ``protection.'' Even the mega-mail retailer L.L. Bean has been carrying solar-powered flashlights and wind-up radios.

Energy conservation is one of the prime challenges ahead for the United States, as we move from an industrial society to a post-industrial technological society. The U.S. still consumes far more than its share of the world's fossil fuels. This consumption of carbon-based fuels is the driving mechanism behind global warming. Without energy conservation and a wholesale switch to renewable energy sources, we will simply be turning up the temperature in our global stew pot.

While I'm glad to see so many people seeking renewable sources of energy, I'm distressed by the cause of their panic. I remember the rush for energy conservation in the 1970s, spurred by the OPEC oil embargo and Jimmy Carter's tax breaks for renewable energy. After all this energy conservation, do we have more energy? No. The planet has less and less each year.

We continue to burn through fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate. Y2K was an opportunity for us to see just how dependent we are on this elaborate system of energy services. We have envisioned, thanks to endless media speculation, life off the grid. Because of Y2K concerns, many more solar panels adorn the roofs of houses (and the tops of radios and flashlights). Households now have more candles and might even use them for a romantic evening without the power company.

Now it is incumbent on us to seek long-term solutions to our energy needs, both in our homes and in our communities. Maybe if Wisconsinites put as much time into energy conservation and local, renewable energy sources as they put into Y2K preparations, they wouldn't need the new power line proposed to cut across the state.

Who's ready for solar hot water heaters on their roof? How about a windmill in the yard? What sounds goofy today may be the necessary reality of tomorrow. Did you buy a hand-cranked radio to keep up with news of post-Y2K Armageddon? Use it, by all means. Install a photovoltaic panel to maintain your household energy needs? Great! Keep plugged into it.

The real push for renewable energy shouldn't come from transient government tax policies or possible computer blips. We can't just move from one energy threat to the next. But the ultimate threats are very real: continue burning fossil fuels as we are, and we will both overheat the planet and exhaust those fuels on which we depend.

Government and industry can help, through regulations, tax breaks and innovation. But the push for renewable energy must finally come from a broad public awareness that it may be the only real means of sustaining our economy and our lifestyles for the next seven generations and beyond.

Slade holds a graduate degree in environmental studies and has been active in environmental education in Northeastern Minnesota since 1987. His column runs monthly.


-- John Whitley (jwhitley@inforamp.net), January 09, 2000

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