Use oil spill as impetus for change

May 16, 2010 

A golden opportunity is bubbling up beneath that undersea volcano of oil spewing thousands of gallons per day into the Gulf of Mexico. We have a chance to move our country, as BP says in its ad campaigns, "beyond petroleum." Despite the spill's devastation, President Obama continues to claim we must push forward with more offshore drilling -- albeit with stronger safeguards -- if we want to increase our energy security.

I disagree. We wouldn't ever be secure, even if we drilled every well off our nation's coasts. It's clear that offshore drilling will never replace what we get from overseas. We must use less oil, regardless of its source.

Let's use the Deepwater Horizon disaster as the impetus we need as a nation to shoot for a target of being oil-free by 2030. And, while we're at it, we might as well go coal-free, if we want to avoid the kinds of deadly coal mining disasters, ash slurry breaches, and destroyed ecosystems we're seeing in Appalachia.

Impossible? Not by a long shot.

Consider this: Consumers will soon be able to buy affordable electric cars. The vehicles will cost around $30,000, according to General Motors, maker of the Chevrolet Volt. To make these cars truly clean, their electricity must be clean, too. Energy efficiency is the best first step to take toward clean energy. And first in line to ramp up our energy efficiency is a smart grid. Energy Secretary Steven Chu claims it will cost more than $100 billion to modernize and "smarten" the grid.

Prohibitive? Only if you consider the costs of not doing so, and doing so soon.

A comprehensive report for the British government, called the "Stern Review," produced a price tag. It determined that 1 percent of global gross domestic product per year -- which would amount to $140 billion for the United States -- is required to be invested in a clean energy transition order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Failing to make this investment could risk costing us up to 20 percent of our global economy -- a potential $2.8 trillion loss.

Building a smart grid and other energy efficiency investments could be a down payment on a global shift. According to a United Nations report, this would make renewable energy affordable for everyone on the planet, in only 10 years.

On a state and local level, renewable energy could create local jobs: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has shown that 31 U.S. states could meet their energy needs with homegrown renewable resources.

What would the average American driver save if the whole nation were to shift gears and switch over to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy distributed on a smart grid? Not a huge amount -- about $2,000 or so per year at current oil prices. But this adds up: with 200 million drivers in the United States, we'd save $400 billion per year.

In addition to the financial return, we'd see no more spills in the Gulf.

And maybe, just maybe, an energy company that really was moving "beyond petroleum." Now there's energy security I can wrap my head, my heart -- and my wallet -- around.

Contact Wysham, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the host of Earthbeat Radio, at IPS, 1112 16th St. N.W., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.

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