30 April 2010

Two Coasts Tell Tale of Where We Are

What happened on two coasts in the US the past two weeks speaks to our energy reality. The two coasts tell us where we are.

Both events illustrate the conundrum in which we find ourselves early in the 21st Century and very early in the transition from one primary fuel source to the next.

First the good news: Consent was given by US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on Wednesday for Cape Wind, the long-stalled 468 MW wind farm project off the coast of Massachusetts. The project was held up by local interests concerned about the appearance of a line of 130 wind turbines located miles off the coast in the Horseshoe Shoal area of Nantucket Sound.

The second was the explosion, sinking, and subsequent leaking of a deep water oil facility last week, which by some estimates is now spewing 5,000 barrels (200,000 gallons) a day into the Gulf of Mexico from below the ocean floor. This spill is set to threaten the Gulf Coast, just five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated that region.

One of these events represents the future of our energy production: Cleaner, renewable, and with a free resource feed stock (the wind). The other represents a variation on the past: Dirty, dangerous, and dependent upon a dwindling feed stock (fossil fuels).

What people forget, however, whether celebrating the victory or decrying the disaster, is that we are not in a position to switch from the old to the new like a light switch in the kitchen.

We are very likely going to need the old to help foster the development of the new -- and our dependence upon the old isn't going away any time soon. Furthermore, because oil is running out, we are likely to see more risky and dangerous ventures to access what's left in the immediate future.

Extracting fossil fuels is a risky and dangerous business, as we've seen with this drilling disaster and last month's coal mine disaster in West Virginia. The sooner we can foster the transition off fossil fuels and to cleaner, renewable source the better off we will be.

But let's not forget where we are in that transition: we are just at the very beginning.

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