Which form of energy production do you hate the least?
By Ken Root
That is the question posed last week on National Public Radio by Dr. Peter Sandman, a behavioral psychologist. I first met him in the late 1980s as he was working with the pesticide industry to address what he called “consumer outrage.” He has polished his comments and evolved in his message but the fact remains that most everything that is put forth as new technology or a new product is met with activism against it. Today, energy production is center stage but other areas are not very far out of the spotlight and will get their turn.
Our demand for energy is insatiable. We expect every device to be powered. We ship raw products from the interior of our country to points of shortage around the world and we bring in manufactured goods that fill the shelves of our stores and stuff the closets of our homes. Growing, hauling, manufacturing, building and distributing all require energy that has become more expensive to produce. As a result, we have no hesitancy to tap into supplies worldwide as well as domestically.
The challenge today is not developing new sources of energy but gaining consumer acceptance and government approval of production. As Sandman points out, there is no form of energy generation that is not hated by someone. Coal, oil and nuclear face the strongest opposition while natural gas, solar, wind, and geothermal get pushback from those who think they are boondoggles that are too expensive or that the unintended consequences are too high.
I’ve been an admirer of windmills since I was a small boy and watched as water was pumped on a nearby farm. It was almost majestic to see the mechanical process that took energy from the sky and flowed out as water in a tank. When modern wind power came about, I saw it as a positive as the energy was renewable and the slowly spinning blades on tall towers were so graceful. That is, until I was on a cruise ship leaving Boston harbor and we passed by a wind turbine and I said to a lady smoking a cigarette that it was a beautiful sight. She gave me a 10-minute lecture on how the “visual pollution” destroyed her view of the ocean or hills. That the government was subsidizing the companies to build them, the amount of energy produced was too little to matter and she hated these contraptions. I posed a question to her about what other forms of energy we could use in times of worldwide demand for a shrinking supply of oil that was pushing prices toward $100 per barrel. She knew I was from Iowa and she suggested that the wind towers should be built there so she didn’t have to look at them. I said we had lots of wind energy production in the Midwest but the electricity was needed in the coastal areas and that would require a billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure to get it to her. That angered her even more and I witnessed her “outrage.”
Sandman suggests that innovators have to give outraged consumers an alternative. In the late 1980s pesticide scare, he suggested that the crop protection industry subsidize organic food production to be sold in supermarkets next to commercially grown fruits and vegetables. In a test market, he showed that consumers who were angry that pesticides were used on produce would walk to the organic section where they would see smaller, cosmetically less attractive products that were priced much higher than the commercial display. They would then push the cart to the bigger tomatoes and the less blemished peppers, get what they needed and head to the checkout counter. He placed this in the “voluntary” versus “involuntary” category of outrage. “Give people a choice and they will make the one that justifies their basic priorities,” he explained.
Today, we are finding more domestic oil and gas but most of it is from regions or sources that were not economically viable at lower prices. The tar sands of Canada and shale of North Dakota can yield “no conflict” oil but that is only partially right as environmentally sensitive Americans oppose production due to pollution, degradation and subsidization.
Natural gas is considered to be a cleaner replacement for coal but consumers oppose “fracking” to get more gas from the underground formations. EPA is accused of not regulating the chemicals injected into the wells nor holding companies accountable for groundwater pollution. There are also earthquakes that seem to happen more frequently in hydraulic fracking regions. Speculation connects the two but scientific proof is lacking.
It is a disappointing characteristic of society that we take for granted that the light will come on when we flip the switch or the engine will start when we turn the key but we condemn the power generation technology or the fuel produced to make it happen. We look at things as “good” when they benefit us but “bad” when the benefit others. Your money from government is a “subsidy” but mine is an “entitlement.” And so it goes…
Not since TIVO has there been a technology that everyone liked. But again, who can fault a device that will pause your television program so you can go the bathroom, talk on the telephone or with your spouse and then turn back to the set and never miss a moment?
If only our energy needs could be that simple!
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.