By Tom Baxter
It’s been a little more than 40 years since Americans sat in hours-long gas lines and learned, to their chagrin, what the letters OPEC stood for. This country’s modern-day energy policy was forged in the aftershocks of the OPEC oil embargo, conditions very different from those which prevail today.
When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries last week failed to agree on a plan to prop up oil prices by limiting production, it was interpreted by some as an act of economic warfare on the United States. But unlike the embargo of four decades ago, this was an act of highly targeted aggression, aimed at undercutting the U.S.-Canadian shale oil industry. So far as American consumers are concerned, the oil states will play unlikely Santas, deepening and prolonging the plunge in gasoline prices.
OPEC’s inaction also represented a jab by one of its members, Saudi Arabia, at another, Iran. The Russians aren’t crazy about OPEC’s failure to put a bottom in the oil market, either, so the long-term repercussions of the meeting last week may be felt more deeply later, but for the time being, in contrast to decades past, this was just a business story. The days when every pronouncement from Riyadh was treated as a geopolitical thunderclap have passed.
We are awash in oil, even if the politics of shortage lingers. The Keystone pipeline became a big issue in the last election, but almost as much as a cultural issue or a matter of principle, as a serious economic and environmental question. The idea of energy independence still holds a great attraction, even when it involves running a pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. But it has been a long time since anyone has sat stewing in a gas line.
On Monday there was another story that underscored how very different from the world we planned to cope with, this world has become. E.ON, the largest utility in Germany, announced it was spinning off the part of its business that includes conventional energy production so that it can concentrate entirely on renewable energy. Imagine the Southern Company spinning off most of its entire existing operation to focus on its solar and wind energy projects, and that’s where they’re at already.
This year, the Germans will produce more energy from renewable sources than they will from coal or nuclear energy. The United States is far behind in this conversion, but the ideas that first gained currency after the oil embargo have begun to bear fruit, as the cost of solar and wind energy production become competitive with conventional sources.
Solar and wind production in this country has been subsidized, and a political argument will continue for a while about whether the word “heavily” should go in front of “subsidized.” As the industry begins to gain its footing, however, its advantages over the escalating costs of building coal or nuclear plants point to a future past subsidies.
Maybe increasing concerns about global warming would in time have caused such a dramatic change in energy production, but the engineering effort which has brought renewables to a stage of competitiveness began in reaction to the OPEC embargo.
Now a sort of convergence appears to be in progress. Scientists at Northwestern University recently discovered that the way information is printed onto Blu-ray discs makes the material a nearly optimal collector of solar energy.
“It’s as if electrical engineers and computer scientists developing the Blu-ray technology have been subconsciously doing our jobs, too,” said materials chemist Jiaxing Huang.
The Northwestern researchers claim the already developed technology could make solar panels 20 percent more efficient than they are today. Scientists at the University of California at San Diego have recently announced the creation of a material which could make even more efficient solar collectors.
There remain significant problems with the storage of renewable energy, but there now is no lack of research to find a solution. We’ve long since ceased to worry, as we did for a while in the ’70s, that we might have to shiver in our homes at the whim of some sheikh. We only worry now that they could raise the price of gas, and not very much about that.