Issue 17 Editor's Letter

By Mark Spellun

In 2005, gas prices soared, triggering a national debate on energy policy. Up until that point, the United States had done so little to address global warming that many environmental leaders (and this magazine) advocated a range of incremental improvements—a whatever-works approach. Change usually happens gradually, unless there is some breakthrough in technology, so it seemed reasonable in the short term to support positive intermediate steps. Even corn-based ethanol didn’t seem so bad: it was, after all, cleaner than fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, some of these intermediate steps seem to be becoming ends in themselves. The U.S. has large amounts of coal reserves and already dedicates considerable farmland to corn thanks to generous federal subsidies. Under the guise of energy security, coal-state lawmakers want to give billions of dollars to help produce diesel fuel from coal, and corn-based ethanol is set to expand considerably in years ahead.

But some of the most promising technologies are getting far less congressional attention than corn. Take algae-based biodiesel: It’s about 200 times more efficient than fuel made from soybeans, and it can be grown in a variety of environments, including saltwater, unused desert land, and water-efficient factories. But despite its merits, the federal government devotes few resources to developing this technology. 

Solar energy has been around for a while, so it may have lost some of its luster. But an acre of solar panels is still a much more efficient fuel source than an acre of corn or soybeans. Although solar power is still more expensive than coal or petroleum, that probably won’t be the case a few years from now.
Washington may be missing out on the next industrial revolution, but the private sector is not. According to the Cleantech Network, a group that promotes investment in clean technology, venture capitalists invested $730 million in North America’s green tech sector during the first quarter of this year. That’s a 42 percent increase since last year.

Some of the power sources we will be using 10 to 20 years from now will likely surprise us. There are potential breakthroughs in geothermal energy, for example, that could make this source far more accessible than it is today (“From the Ground Up,” page 30). And it won’t be the first time an old idea has taken on new meaning. Many of the technologies we use now have been around for quite some time, in some form or another—they just needed time to percolate. (“Back to the Future,” page 64).

We’re steadily moving toward an era of cleaner technology, thanks to green-minded businesses and a new generation of visionaries. Americans have begun to follow their lead—and if the federal government does, too, we may get there sooner than we once thought. 

-Mark Spellun

Issue 25

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