Energy: The Turning Point

Tom Shipka

Fast forward fifty years to the United States of America 2058. Most of the cars and trucks run on natural gas, ethanol, or batteries, not gasoline or diesel fuel. Most of the nation's electricity is generated...

  • by thousands of huge solar panels arrayed across the western states,
  • by hundreds of nuclear power plants, and
  • by thousands of windmills along a 400-mile wide corridor through the central states from North Dakota and Minnesota to Texas.

A huge new transmission grid spreads energy from these sources across the nation.
In a high school science class, a teacher explains to her students that the turning point in energy policy in America was summer 2008 when the cost of a gallon of gasoline surpassed $4 and two prominent Americans - Republican T. Boone Pickens, a billionaire oil man, and Democrat Al Gore, a former vice-president - released far-reaching energy reform plans a day apart in the month of July (a). These plans gained traction, the teacher says, for the following reasons:

  1. Oil, a non-renewable source of energy, had become too expensive, and oil and coal were major causes of global pollution,
  2. The White House, Congress, and the American people were willing to swallow the huge one-time cost of an energy overhaul - trillions of dollars - as a preferable alternative to sending $1 trillion a year every year to foreign oil producers,
  3. Despite some differences, the Pickens and Gore plans shared a commitment to energy independence for the nation and much greater use of renewable and clean sources of energy (b),
  4. The authors had far-reaching influence with different but important political constituencies,
  5. The celebrity of the authors guaranteed extensive media exposure to their plans,
  6. Support for greater reliance on renewable domestic sources of energy had been growing across the country when the reports surfaced,
  7. Support for greater reliance on non-renewable but abundant domestic sources of energy had also been growing across the country when the reports surfaced,
  8. The fact that two such disparate public figures as Pickens and Gore spoke with one voice on the need for an overhaul of energy production and distribution in America made people from all backgrounds pay attention, and
  9. The energy overhaul had other important benefits for the nation, including the creation of tens of thousands of good-paying manufacturing and construction jobs and a surge in national pride and patriotism.
  10. Now, back to 2008. The scenario just described is a possible future. Whether this possible future becomes an actual one depends on whether the American people and their leaders are prepared to accept the challenge of Mr. Pickens and Mr. Gore to launch a bold and expensive national initiative in the field of energy similar to the mobilization of the nation for World War II, the defeat of Hitler and his allies, the Marshall Plan, the construction of the interstate highway system, and Neil Armstrong's visit to the moon. Only time will tell.

  • For the Pickens plan, see and for the Gore plan, see The two plans were released within a twenty-four hour period, the Pickens plan on July 17 and the Gore plan on July 18.
  • As to differences between the plans, the Pickens Plan emphasizes wind power and the conversion of natural gas from the generation of electricity to transportation but is silent on the future of coal, solar power, and nuclear power while the Gore Plan emphasizes solar power, wind power, and electric cars and seems to call for a phase out of coal but is silent on natural gas and nuclear power. (See page 11 of the Gore Plan.) The silence of both plans on nuclear energy, which provides 75% of the electricity in France, is a serious flaw. Also, both plans are silent on various technical issues that stand in the way of implementation of their major proposals. For instance, how can we store surplus electricity generated by wind turbines until it is needed?

© 2008 Tom Shipka