Charlie Sheen and the Energy Reality Gap

The political events in the Middle East and North Africa are raising global oil prices and causing economies to wobble.  The easy and inexpensively extracted oil has been exploited, and what sources remain, like tar sands, consume ever more energy, water, and money for extraction.  Oil, as one of the primary fossil fuels in our lives today, has had and continues to have catastrophic impacts to the atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere.  This is our energy reality.  And yet, political leaders and much of the American public ignore the reality that oil doesn’t have a future as an energy source. 

This is the energy reality gap in America, and it’s time for us to close that gap and focus more public and private funding in Smart Grid technologies.  But like Charlie Sheen, many live in an alternate reality where capitalism means the subsidization of mature, profitable oil industries; harmful external costs like pollution to the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and geosphere should be borne by taxpayers and not the businesses that create them; and we’ll never run out of oil.    

The Smart Grid can change our energy reality in two critical aspects.  First, it integrates renewable domestic energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal into our electrical supply.   While very little of our electricity is sourced from oil, around 90% of our transportation system runs on it.  Electrification of our transportation system puts energy reliance on domestic energy sources that are not impacted by global political events, and we’ll reduce our trade deficit as we reduce energy imports.  Another benefit is the reduction in Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through use of clean renewables.

Second, the Smart Grid adds bi-directional flow of communications and electricity, which disrupts the entire transportation infrastructure in very interesting ways.  Consider that smart charging, which manages the timing, pace, and extent of charging loads of electric vehicles (EVs), is only possible in Smart Grid-enabled networks.  Smart charging lets drivers charge from the grid when demand and prices for electricity are at their lowest, as well as charging up the grid by selling back electricity during peak times.  When is the last time an oil company offered that sort of give and take to consumers?

A strong commitment from the government in increased and long-term funding of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) and other investment channels can speed the development and deployment of Smart Grid technologies that electrify our transportation infrastructure and give us, at last, energy security that doesn’t require the US military in overseas adventures.  Last week ARPA-E held the Energy Innovation Summit in Washington DC to showcase the progress of investments made in innovative energy technologies.  That’s a great start, but we need to continue the federal funding commitments and focus on game-changing technologies to accelerate progress, as well as increase private sector activity. 

Would political turmoil in Libya or the Middle East have an effect on the cost of electricity that is generated by renewables within our borders?  No.  Would we be shocked by dramatic price increases every time we charge our cars?  No.  Think about that next time you fill up your gas tank.  It’s time to ask your elected representatives these questions, and why they are still subsidizing the past (oil) instead of investing in the future (electricity).  It’s time to stop emulating Charlie Sheen in our energy policies. 

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