Sunlight Extracted from Cucumbers Reshapes U.S. Energy Debate
Photograph by Warner Bros./Everett Collection
A soot-covered scientist at the Grand Academy of Lagado successfully extracted sunlight from cucumbers and stored it in aluminum cans. The discovery will allow energy producers to generate solar-powered electricity at night and will provide unlimited on-demand wintertime heat, researchers said.
A lofty idea, but purely fictional. The Grand Academy is an invention of Jonathan Swift, in his 1726 novel, Gulliver’s Travels. The nearly 300-year-old tale comes to life again via Vaclav Smil, the prolific (nonfiction) author and energy-and-environmental systems professor at the University of Manitoba. He discusses Swift’s cucumbers in a 2011 essay, titled "Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations." The story resonates today because it fulfills what many people are looking for from the energy industry -- a simple solution to complex problems.
Smil likens Swift's cucumbers to what he calls energy infatuations, "it" technologies that are purported to save us from foreign oil dependency, toxic pollution and climate change. He warns against such magical thinking.
President Obama last month hit the road to support his "all-of-the-above” energy policy, a collection of the “it” energy options. I was reminded of Swift’s cucumbers. The administration’s policy embraces most domestic energy sources, including shale gas, oil, fuel efficiency, solar, wind, biomass, and pretty much everything else but coal. The White House ticks through them one by one and describes how the administration would support each industry. This approach has drawn fire from critics on both the left and right, for trying to please everyone, and potentially making “none of the above” happy.
There are two ways to set up an “all” strategy. One is the president’s: identify a potential pool of sources for the U.S. energy mix, from oil to gas, from corn to -- borrowing from Swift -- cukes. Make sure that each has incentives for both growth and safety. Then adjust the knobs until satisfied. Over time, Obama's definition of “all” would narrow as the U.S. continues its “transition from oil towards cleaner alternatives and energy efficiency,” according to a March 21 White House fact sheet. It sounds like a lot of work, setting policies for the individual technologies to make sure that each is supported the precise amount to maintain balance while encouraging innovation. It sounds like central planning.
A second way might avoid the multiple-choice element altogether. It would focus not on our infatuations with particular energy sources but on the market in which they operate. Once in place, politicians can just let price signals do the work of selecting the smartest, lowest-cost energy sources for them. These market levers could include limiting overall emissions of heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, and making electric grids more efficient and transparent, so consumers know what they're buying and how much they're paying at different times of day.
The beauty of this approach is that there is a rich variety of market-boosting policies already in existence to draw from. In fact, there are enough different approaches that both Democrats and Republicans can choose their own perfectly reasonable low-carbon solutions and still claim to have nothing to do with the other’s ideas.
The only problem with this one-size-fits-all-of-the-above approach is recent history. The U.S. tried to enact a market-based approach to energy policy a couple of years ago--a variation on the “cap-and-trade” approach to pollution reduction popularized in the George H.W. Bush administration and later by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman. Republicans now deride market-focused approaches as if they were originally Democratic ideas. Obama couldn’t move his version through the Senate in 2009.
The market-based approach is the true all-of-the-above-energy policy. That doesn’t make it easy to put into place. Even well-crafted legislation won't guarantee that a market achieves the initial policy goals. In Washington, these debates are moot anyway because enacting a market-wide, climate-safe approach at this point is tougher than extracting sunlight from cucumbers.
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