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Energy literacy - what you don't know can hurt you

It seems that everybody's got an opinion these days about how to fight high gas prices. Punish price gougers. Tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Drill in protected areas in Alaska or off the Atlantic coast.

And then there's the chain e-mail urging a consumer boycott of one brand of gas station at a time until each company cries "uncle" and agrees to lower its price to, say, $1.59 a gallon.

Normally, Americans don't give energy a second thought - and it shows. We'd much rather argue about such nonissues as flag burning, gay marriage and when it's finally time to ban the Spanish language.

But when the price of gas, electricity or heating oil goes up, then we can hardly talk about anything else besides energy. And of course, we all think we're experts. But, boy, are we wrong.

The sad truth is that Americans know much less about energy than we think, according to a study released last September by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation in Washington, D.C:

  • Just 12 percent of Americans can pass a basic quiz on awareness of energy topics.
  • 130 million Americans believe that hydropower is America's top energy source, though it accounts for just 10 percent of the total.
  • Most Americans agree with the myth that "America uses pollution-free energy," when in fact energy use is our biggest single source of global warming gases and other pollutants.

To compound the problem, "three Americans in four rated themselves as having 'a lot' or 'a fair amount' of knowledge about energy," says Kevin Coyle, former president of the NEETF and the study's author, "even though just 12 percent passed our quiz. This gap between real and imagined knowledge could stand in the way of Americans realizing a more energy efficient future."

With gas prices rising and peak oil here at the same time that we start to feel global warming's first effects, it will be crucial to the world's future that Americans, who use the most energy and create the most pollution, make smart decisions about energy.

But to do that, we need to begin by realizing how little we know and how much we have to learn. "Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge," said Alfred North Whitehead.

We should start to learn about energy. And we should take it seriously - as seriously as we take learning about how to manage our money.

What is energy literacy?

We already know that we need a basic level of financial literacy to balance our checkbooks, to use credit cards wisely, to invest for our kids' college funds and our own retirement and to avoid financial scams. We also need to form intelligent opinions on taxes, government spending and monetary policy.

In tough economic times, money knowledge is more important than ever, as we have seen in the depressions and recessions of the past.

Today, we may not be facing our toughest economic times. But we may soon see the toughest energy times we've ever known.

With levels of greenhouse gases higher than they've been in a million years, we have little time for business as usual if we want to avert dangerous global warming. At the same time, petroleum geologists say the peak of world oil production is immanent. From now on, fossil fuels will likely enter a period of volatility and price spikes, which means lack of supply will force us to change our ways, global warming or not.

Thus, today it's more important than ever we should develop basic energy literacy. It's the only way each of us can make smart decisions about our own energy use - decisions such as SUV or hybrid, big house or small one, gas or electric heat.

We must also be energy-literate to contribute in a positive way to the national and international dialogue on solutions to global warming and peak oil. Should we squeeze Iraq for more oil or try to save gas at home? Should we build more nuclear plants or subsidize clean coal? Should we regulate emission of global-warming gasses?

We've heard a lot about developing new energy sources - wind, solar, biomass to increase supply. But the fastest and cheapest way to solve our energy crunch (and slow global warming) is to reduce our demand for energy. Why haven't we heard more about conservation and energy-efficiency?

If we know more about energy, we can ask these questions, and we can understand the answers.

What is energy literacy? It's knowing the basics about where our energy comes from, how much it costs, how much we use, and what are its impacts on the environment and people at every stage, from production to distribution to end use.

Learning about energy doesn't need to be one more chore in our busy lives. In fact, it can help us make more sense of today's complex world.

"Here we're in an age of data overload, so if you learn about energy, you're addressing three concerns at once, national security, the economy and the environment," says Harvey Sachs of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy based in Washington, D.C.

To further the cause of energy literacy in a modest way, I've put together a list below.

Five big things Americans should know about energy

1. There's no civilization without energy.

"No economic activity today can take place without the consumption of some energy," says John Tobin, executive director of the Energy Literacy Project based in Evergreen, Colo. "We need energy to heat homes, drive to work, electrify offices - to simply live."

But most people don't realize the importance of energy until something goes wrong. "One of the scariest examples of how people rely on energy came in pictures from the tsunami in the Indian Ocean from a few years ago. We saw people lined up for hours to get fuel oil just to boil water so they could drink it and cook their food. It shows how energy is essential to people."

Americans might remember the gas lines of the seventies.

Energy is so important that wars have been won and lost by access to energy sources. An ample supply of coal to feed its armament industry helped the Union win the Civil War. Coal also helped Imperial Germany build a fleet to challenge Great Britain and start World War I, while switching its own navy from coal to oil helped Britain prevail in that conflict. In World War II a lack of oil stopped Rommel's tanks in North Africa and docked much of the Japanese fleet in the Pacific.

Today, most international tension revolves around access to oil, whether in Iraq and Iran, in Nigeria and throughout Africa, around the Caspian Sea or in the South China Sea.

2. There's no 28th Amendment.

Because energy is so crucial to our lives, Americans have developed an expectation that all forms of energy will always be cheap and plentiful. "The American public is accustomed to having abundant energy available at all times," Tobin says. "They expect to fuel their vehicles with gasoline, heat their homes with natural gas and have electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

Tobin says that the public often seems to act as if there were an extra amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness shall be fueled by cheap and abundant energy."

But energy is no more a right today than it was in the past when our ancestors had to scrounge for firewood in the forest or pull their own plows. Just because we've enjoyed cheap energy for the last 50 years - the time of the Oil Age, which is fast running down - does not mean that it's guaranteed forever. Indeed, today we've reached a turning point.

Only if we are informed of the ways that energy is connected to the economy and to the environment can Americans make the difficult tradeoffs necessary to protect our way of life and the natural systems that sustain life on earth. "In Iraq and Afghanistan every day, the allies are burning 25 gallons of gasoline per soldier," Tobin says, as an example. "It's a price that citizens have to pay, and we should be aware of it."

3. There's no free lunch.

"People need to recognize that they're connected to the environment," says Diane Wood, Coyle's successor as president of the NEETF. "Everyday choices are connected to the natural environment. We should stop, pause, and learn more about it to make healthy choices for the environment."

Like Tobin, Wood thinks Americans need to go beyond myths about energy. "What surprises me is how much incorrect information people have and how strongly they hold to it. That often comes from a visual, like the Exxon Valdez, which makes people think that industry is the main source of pollution. In fact, more pollution comes from oil leaking out of millions of individual cars."

Americans are good at passing the buck for pollution and energy prices hikes to business, but this won't solve our problems. Instead, we should start to take matters into our own hands.

On a personal level, we should work to control our energy use and to know its consequences. Melanie Lord of the Energy Center of Wisconsin in Madison thinks that Americans should know such facts as how much electricity and gasoline we use, where those sources come from, their impacts on the environment and how to reduce the amounts we use.

Of course, we should certainly demand that industry and government do their part. Particularly, Congress should require automakers to produce cars and trucks that get better fuel economy. With global warming and $3 gas, there's no excuse for letting Detroit sell a Hummer that gets 12 MPG.

4. There's no silver bullet.

You'll hear this phrase from those who are skeptical of alternatives to replace our current use of fossil fuels. A main concern is energy quality - a measure of the amount of economic activity required to extract or produce energy - according to Cutler Cleveland, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University.

"In history, major advances in civilization have occurred when societies have jumped from low-yield to high-yield energy sources," Cleveland says.

Thus, humans have moved from using the lowest yield sources - wood, water and wind - to progressively denser sources - coal and then oil and natural gas. Today's industrial society is built on cheap, abundant sources of high-quality energy. It would be a serious setback for us to transition back down to lower-quality energy sources, even if they are clean and renewable.

Gasoline is polluting, but from an economic perspective, it is a very high quality energy source. A gallon of gas provides as much energy as a human working full time for three weeks, according to David Pimentel, professor of agriculture and life sciences at Cornell University. More dispersed sources like solar, wind or biomass can't hope to match that kind of power in such a small package.

In addition, alternative energy has many problems of its own. Solar power and hydrogen fuels are decades away from viability, if they ever get there. Wind power may now be competitive on price with nuclear energy, but communities from Nantucket Sound to Appalachia have refused to welcome the industrial installations featuring dozens of 400-foot high wind turbines required to make wind profitable.

And many other alternative energy ideas sound like little more than science fiction, such as launching satellites with giant solar panels to beam electricity down to earth from outer space.

But the public can be easily taken in by fanciful schemes because we are not used to analyzing alt-energy sources critically. Just as we are quick to put the blame for all our energy problems on industry, so we are perhaps even quicker to ascribe to that same industry supernatural powers to solve those energy problems.

"Tap water," muses a woman in a recent cartoon by Roz Chast in The New Yorker offering "Free Ideas for Alternative Fuels." "Why can't cars run on tap water? What about steam engines? There must be a way."

5. Can't live with it, can't live without it.

"The only thing worse than running out of oil," says Charles Hall, professor of systems ecology at SUNY-Syracuse, "is not running out of oil." Oil is the lifeblood of industrial civilization, and 97 percent of all transportation relies on oil, with no viable substitute on the horizon. But burning oil and other fossil fuels creates more dangerous global-warming gasses than any other human activity.

Will peak oil save us from global warming? That is, will running out of cheap oil slow down the rate at which humans release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere? Probably not. Left to their own devices and without government regulation of carbon emissions, simple economics of supply and demand will encourage us to replace cheap oil with the easiest affordable energy source. In America's case, this is coal, of which the U.S. is said to have a 250-year supply at current usage rates.

The industry is already working on ways to profitably liquefy coal to replace gasoline, diesel and even jet fuel. And that's bad news for the environment, since coal is much dirtier than oil, even burned using today's technology. And today's way of mining coal, through aggressive strip mining and mountaintop removal, is actually more destructive to the environment than the deep mining of the past.

As to tomorrow's technology of clean coal, so far it's nothing more than speculation from an industry with little history of doing anything safely or cleanly.

Become energy literate now for a better future

"In the larger scheme of things, it's a matter of survival to learn about energy," says Kevin Coyle, who now serves as vice president of education with the National Wildlife Foundation in Reston. "In the immediate term, all of our lives will be better if we are aware of energy used, energy spent, global warming and a variety of other key issues."

Coyle says that as a nation we should get our energy priorities straight. First, we need to increase conservation and energy efficiency. Then, we should look for alternatives to fossil fuels. Finally, we should rely on fossil fuels, used as cleanly and sparingly as possible, and only when there are no practical substitutes.

"I think it's going to be a long, hard road," Coyle says. "If you look at the immediate past, there doesn't seen to be much room for optimism. But now there are increased opportunities for energy efficiency. We have labeling programs like Energy Star, green power and an awareness of global warming."

The Department of Energy says that just by using the "off the shelf" energy-efficient technologies available today such as Energy Star-rated appliances, we could cut the cost of heating, cooling and lighting our homes and workplaces by up to 80 percent.

Perhaps the hardest part of getting started is getting energy-literate. Don't worry if you didn't learn about energy in school. Most schools do a poor job of covering energy, according to the NEETF report, and Americans get most of their information about energy from the media.

Tobin of the Energy Literacy Project has called on the Secretary of Energy to take a leadership role in raising Americans' knowledge. His group wants Washington to convene a conference of representatives from industry, government, education and the nonprofit sector to formulate a national plan to coordinate the hundreds of existing education programs which, so far, have not led to any appreciable gain in Americans' energy literacy.

In the meantime, you can take the time to educate yourself about energy so that you can be part of the solution to leave a livable world to our children and grandchildren.

On the Web

- Energy Star Program: www.energystar.gov
- American Council for Energy Efficiency: www.aceee.org
- Energy Literacy Project: www.energy-literacy.org
- National Environmental Education and Training Foundation: www.neetf.org
- U.S. Energy Information Administration: www.eia.doe.gov
- Energy Center of Wisconsin: www.ecw.org
- Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, Boston University: www.bu.edu/cees/

Erik Curren is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Curren is the author of Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today. More information about Curren's works is available on-line at www.alayapress.com. The views expressed by op-ed writers do not necessarily reflect those of management of The Augusta Free Press.

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