Energy prophets

By Jeffrey Lewis | Mar 13, 2009

I recently embarked on the quest to learn as much as I can about Maine’s energy problems. I didn’t do it out of any particular expertise or with any special credentials except being a citizen of Maine and a parent of small children. Knowledge, they say, is power, but in this case, the more I learn the more scared I get.

To solve our problems it seems that almost everything has to change. No, let me put that a different way – almost everything is going to change because it simply can’t keep going like it is. The real question I am left with from this quest to become an energy expert is what kind of transition are we going to have when our unsustainable system does what unsustainable systems always do. They evolve or they collapse.

This realization makes me want to yell out on the streets like an old world prophet: “Repent! We need to change our ways!”

It’s really bad, this urge, and I’m trying to restrain myself. Like most of us, I like it when people like me, and I know for sure that the world does not like prophets very much, at least not when they’re doing their thing. Sure, the world honors its prophets a generation or two after it gets rid of them, but when prophets are doing their thing, they are so annoying.

Let me say something else about prophets. We speak of prophets as people who predict the future. That’s not really the essence of what they do. What prophets actually do, what makes them so unpleasant to the status quo, is that that they see the present for what it actually is. And when they see the present for what it actually is, staying silent about what they see becomes unbearable. The clarity with which they see the present gives urgency to their voices about the future. When I look at the current facts about Maine’s energy issues, I worry about my kids and what life will be like for them if we do nothing about today.

While Maine actually leads the country in the production of electricity from renewable sources like hydro and biomass and wood products, half our electricity is still made from natural gas. This gas may be natural, but it’s not natural to Maine, and it never will be.

Furthermore, electricity accounts for only 10 percent of the energy we currently use in Maine. Fifty percent of our energy use is for transportation where we burn distilled fossil fuels from far away that put 5 pounds of carbon into the sky for every 6-pound gallon we burn – once.

Another 40 percent of our energy goes to heating our homes and other buildings the same way, burning nonrenewable sources of energy that come from far away, the price of which we have very little control over. Eighty percent of our homes are heated this way, including mine. I think this is a problem, economically, environmentally and logically. It’s a finite source of power, and none of it is from here. I cannot find one serious person, not one scholar, scientist, economist or oil dealer who predicts that these problems related to a petroleum-based energy system will improve with time.

Then consider this: In 1998, the average household in Maine spent 5 percent of its budget on energy. Last year it was 20 percent. We all know that we have been granted a reprieve on oil in the last few months, but it has taken a worldwide crisis to grant us this “gift.”

One recent study I saw from the University of Maine predicted conservatively that if we keep driving and heating our homes the way we are in 2009, energy could well account for 40 percent of the typical Maine family budget in 2018. As Angus King said in a recent speech I heard, this will make Maine functionally uninhabitable for most of us.

What are the chances that all these data are wrong? One in five? One in 500? One in 5,000? Nobody knows. But I do know this: The chance that my house is going to burn to the ground next year is probably about one in 10,000.

If I carried no insurance on my house, people would think that I was being irresponsible. And they’d be right. I also know for sure that Maine is never going to have its own domestic, renewable, cheap source of petroleum. I also know for sure that continuing to burn away these fuels as quickly as possible in our time makes them not available for the future. And I know for sure that I can think of no way that burning them up as quickly and mindlessly as we can will be seen as responsible, prudent or moral.

But here’s the other part of seeing the problems of the present: We can do something about them. Our problems are serious, but so are our opportunities if we start learning, talking and acting. I know there are other energy prophets out there. Please come out from wherever you are, and let’s start changing the present to protect the future.
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