Relationships fascinate us. Americans are always picking up the latest issue of their favorite magazine or clicking on that random pop-up website that promises five easy secrets to a satisfying relationship. Love stories dominate box offices around the world.
And the other day, while I was watching a movie, I realized our nation’s energy policy is a romantic comedy.
Now, in a lot of romantic comedies, the story goes something like this: A nerdy guy likes the main female character, and he’s always there for her when she needs him, but she says she doesn’t feel the same way about him; they’re just “friends.”
Enter the bad boy. He’s usually the new kid in town or the new guy at work. There is an aura of mystery and excitement around him, and seemingly limitless potential. Unsurprisingly, the lead female character falls for his charm, and the nerdy, reliable guy gets left out in the cold.
It’s the same thing with our energy policy.
We have plenty of reliable, “nice-guy” sources of energy in coal, petroleum, and natural gas. They are there, rain or shine, heat wave or polar vortex. They provide us with the heat and electricity we need day-in and day-out, yet we really don’t appreciate just exactly what they do for us because they’re always there. Just like the nice guy in the movies. Instead, we tend to focus on new, flashy, bad boy, flavor-of-the-month energy sources, like wind and solar. We hope we don’t end up heartbroken by the flash in the pan.
One characteristic of the quintessential bad boy is he is unreliable. Renewable energy sources are no different, especially when it comes to electricity generation. For example, many of the windmills used for electricity generation are of the 1.5 megawatt variety, which we are told could power 360 to 800 homes for a year. The problem is they don’t.
Wind turbines generate power only when the wind is blowing, so although they could theoretically generate 1.5 megawatts if they were running all the time, in reality they can’t. Instead, wind turbines generate electricity about 36 percent of the time, meaning that two out of three times, we get stood up, and it tends to happen when it matters most.
In some cities, power companies charge more for electricity during the times of day that have the highest usage, called peak demand. Although this may sound cruel, it’s a tool to get people to avoid using extra energy at this time because it puts more stress on the power grid. If we relied solely on bad-guy energy sources like wind, two out of three houses (on average) would be left in the dark.
There are real negative consequences to depending on bad-boy energy for long-term security. Places like hospitals, schools, and businesses need consistent, reliable, and affordable electricity to perform the vital services we rely on. People who live in cold areas need access to natural gas and fuel oil to heat their homes during polar vortexes or risk the possibility their water pipes will freeze and burst, and other, even worse consequences.
Although nice-guy energy sources may not be as in-vogue or attractive as the bad-boy renewable sources, they provide the only practical way to keep the lights on and our houses warm.
I never thought I’d say this, but it’s time to take a lesson from those romantic comedies. It’s time to stop taking those reliable, plentiful, and affordable sources of energy for granted. Although bad-boy sources may be trendy for the moment, they just aren’t going to be there when we need them.