THE MAGAZINE

Here We Go Again

By Sherry L. Harowitz

There’s a saying: The more things change, the more they remain the same. It’s one of those clichés that sound like gibberish and yet are absolutely true. So what makes that saying so apt today? Well, I was just reading a piece about how the “best brains” and venture capitalists are now focusing on developing alternative energy sources—and I was hit with déjà vu—I’ve definitely been here before.
 
In 1979, I had just come to Washington. I worked at an oil company office in Dupont Circle, near Embassy Row. Tensions were high between the United States and Iran, which had seized U.S. hostages. In addition, the country was in the midst of an energy crisis; oil prices were skyrocketing, and—then, as now—everyone was pouring money into alternative energy and energy conservation proposals. The government even created tax credits for solar investments.
 
Flash forward. You’d expect great progress in the intervening years, right? Guess again. The hostages were freed, and the lines at the pump dissipated, as did the national resolve. By the early 1980s, government funding for renewable energy and conservation programs had been cut by about 80 percent and energy efficiency initiatives were abandoned.
 
What about the private sector? In the 1980s, some oil companies, such as Exxon, bought up nascent solar companies—and then abandoned them. Of course, it’s possible that the technology truly wasn’t cost effective at the time. Whatever the reason, while the United States was once a leader in alternative energy, other countries are now far ahead in successfully developing solar, wind, ethanol, and nuclear applications.
 
Now it’s 2007, and we’re again as a nation stiffening our resolve to become energy independent. As the former President Ronald Reagan might say, here we go again.
 
Coincidentally, on the same day that the story about the “best brains” working on alternative energy was reported, a Canadian paper reported on a study from that country’s national defense department about how terrorists are targeting the world’s oil refineries; they know that even a small disruption could cripple Western economies.
 
Making sure that we properly secure oil assets is, of course, a must, as discussed in this month’s cover story group. But it’s also essential to build in backup options—and that doesn’t just mean an additional refinery or another server for the electrical grid. It means getting serious about diversifying energy just as we would diversify an investment portfolio.
 
When I was growing up, we were taught that humans only used about five percent of their brains. We’d be really amazing if only we could tap into the other 95 percent, we were told. Today, neurologists know that we use 100 percent of our brains. Sadly, we just don’t use them very well, at least when it comes to planning our energy future. Let’s hope we get better.

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