If there’s one lesson you should pick up from this story, it’s that alternative energy isn’t only about changing what we put in our fuel tanks or how our electricity is made. Alternative energy is going to alter entire business plans and change who we are, what our responsibilities are, and how we think about ourselves. If it helps, though, this transition is nothing new. The United States has already gone through it once before. This country began as a place where energy was individual labor—something most people had to physically be involved with every day, whether they were chopping wood or driving a team of horses. Fossil fuels—oil, coal-fired engines, natural gas—changed all of that. During the course of the twentieth century, energy became a commodity. Most Americans didn’t directly labor to produce it. Most of us didn’t have to think about it at all, except when we paid the monthly bills.
Now, as where we get our energy from shifts again, what energy is—what it means to us—is changing again, too. Yet we aren’t reverting to the nineteenth century. We’re creating something new. The future of energy is a world that shares characteristics of both the past and the present. In the future, we will see where the electricity we use is made. It’ll be on our roofs, in our rivers, closer to our cities. Because more of us will make electricity, more of us will have to pay attention to how the grid works and how our choices affect it. Third parties will still handle the complicated details of keeping that energy supply reliable. There will still be wizards of the grid. Utility companies will still exist, even if their primary business model is fundamentally different. You and I are still going to enjoy the convenience of not having to chop wood every time we want a warm house. It will be different, and we won’t all get what we want, but different and imperfect don’t necessarily mean bad.
This can work. This future can happen. Yet it won’t simply happen on its own. Standing between us and the future of energy is an awfully big wall. Whether we can scale it will depend on how well we can plan and whether we have the willpower to follow those plans through.
Read more. [Image: Wisconsin Historical Society]