The Fix for Fossil Fuel’s Spill Legacy: Democratization of Energy

The Fix for Fossil Fuel’s Spill Legacy: Democratization of Energy

NATIONAL JOURNAL 07/22/13
By Michael Shank

If Washington wants to avoid another Canadian case study and minimize the disasters associated with transporting fossil fuels it should, simply, stop transporting them. Here’s why and here’s how:

The fossil fuel spill legacy is long. Most memorable is the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which spilled up to 627,000 tons of oil into an already fragile marine environment, and the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound that spilled 104,000 tons of oil and endangered extensive sea and wildlife.

But do folks know about the spill off the shores of Angola, which dumped 260,000 tons of oil into the ocean? Or the spill near Genoa, in the Mediterranean, which dumped 144,000 tons of oil into the sea? How about the one in Uzbekistan that dumped 285,000 tons? The Gulf War oil spill of 820,000 tons? Nova Scotia’s 132,000 tons? South Africa’s 252,000 tons? Persian Gulf’s 260,000 tons? Greece’s 100,000 tons? Trinidad and Tobago’s 287,000 tons? Mexico’s 480,000 tons? France’s 227,000 tons? Nigeria’s 328,000 tons? Or California’s 1,230,000 tons?

There are many more examples of tens of thousands of tons of oil spilled all throughout the world. The aforementioned accidents are merely the most notable for the mere fact that they all exceed 100,000 tons of oil. And that’s just oil. Coal and natural gas come with their own toxic spilling into water and air supplies. These fuels will not come clean within our lifetime. If we want to avoid risk, we need to stop transporting fuel and, instead, produce our energy onsite in a more renewable and sustainable way.

The only energy capable of doing that is renewable energy. We have the capacity to equip most of America with local, micro-production capacity using a mix of solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and, if need be, hydro.

Think of it as the democratization of energy. Much like everyone has a right to vote, so too does everyone have a right to his or her own energy. No longer do the utilities dominate and control market price. No longer do antiquated and centralized power grids serve as security risks (from attack by a non-state actor or by overburdened usage and outage). No longer do communities need to worry about energy transportation that puts human and natural health at immediate risk.

This is the way of the future and a boat that we have yet to sail, despite the fact that other countries are well on their way toward that goal – outpacing us on wind and solar. While all of this will be good for the environment, more renewable energy not only will help reduce our carbon consumption and carbon emissions, it will help the world become a more peaceful place.

First, perhaps most obviously, as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels and onto renewable energies such as wind and solar, we dramatically reduce the propensity of nations to fight foreign wars over fossilized energy resources in the name of energy security.

Second, the more we transition off centralized, fossil fuel-based power grids and cumbersome production facilities that pose a security risk to potential domestic attack (e.g., nuclear and coal plants, gas pipelines or oil refineries) and transition to micromanaged wind and solar infrastructure, the less risk we will face in light of growing terror attacks. Imagine smaller grids that serve smaller communities and are thus less susceptible to sabotage.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the more we enable and empower communities and citizens around the world to harness wind and solar energy at the micro and local level, the more we ultimately democratize energy and equip developing countries with the tools and techniques needed to develop more efficiently and effectively.

Consider how mobile phones have become ubiquitous in the developing world (thanks to rapidly falling costs and increasing availability), serving as a critical lifeline to banking, agriculture, trade and commerce activities. Now let’s do the same with renewable technologies by making them affordable and accessible. Imagine what portable and affordable devices capable of capturing renewable energy could offer poor and underdeveloped villages.

This also helps ensure that resources are distributed equitably, at least on the energy front. In many countries, unfortunately, energy and energy utilities are in the hands of the powerful few, often to the detriment of the powerless majority. The democratization of energy changes that dynamic. It also decreases the likelihood of violence. One of the eight fundamental factors found in more peaceful environments, as reported by the Institute for Economics and Peace, was the equitable distribution of resources. Energy equitability, then, should be a longer-term goal.

This is the future of energy if we want it. Now all we have to do is go get it.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is a professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.