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The Daily Tar Heel

Our energy policies don't need to depend on oil from abroad

During the past three years, we have often heard that Sept. 11, 2001, was the day that everything changed. But one thing that's changed very little since the attacks is how and where we get our energy. We still depend on foreign oil and gas for much of it.

U.S. Department of Energy statistics show that we have consumed more energy than we have produced since at least 1970. And government projections show the gap widening in the future, meaning that we'll be more dependent upon oil imports than ever before.

Look at five of our top six sources of foreign oil - Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria and Iraq. You don't need to be a cynic to think that oil and foreign policy are intimately linked. They are, and thanks to our current energy consumption practices, they need to be. As a result, we turn a blind eye to state-sanctioned beheadings in Saudi Arabia, work to keep Venezuela's Hugo Chavez underfoot and shrug aside the systematic destruction of Ogoni homelands in the Niger Delta.

Did I mention Iraq?

Of course, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry both have proposals that purport to respond to our energy predicament.

Bush has worked for the past four years to grant oil industry wishes to expedite drilling across the western United States and in Alaska and to expand coal and nuclear power production - often discounting the environmental costs or long-term inadequacy of these supplies. One centerpiece of the Bush energy plan - drilling part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - would offer only about six months of oil for U.S. needs, according to the refuge's defenders. And even that would not reach refineries for a decade.

Kerry's plan points more aggressively toward conservation and an increased emphasis on renewable resources such as solar and wind power - both of which are important steps. But he needs to do more to clarify how the United States can avoid its dead-end courtship with petroleum.

I wish these guys would read The Professional Geographer. In case you missed the May 2004 issue - there wasn't a UNC student on the cover - Deborah Feder, a geography professor at California State University-Fullerton, outlined a strategy that could move the United States toward energy self-sufficiency at a relatively low cost. Disguised as an academic paper, her set of ideas suggests how we could be stronger as a nation by using creative energy strategies.

Feder's plan rests upon the simple notion that energy sources are not precious for what they are, but rather for what they do. Most Americans don't care how their air conditioners or water heaters are powered. They simply want cool houses and hot showers - the cheaper, the better.

By this logic, using what Feder calls an "end-use strategy" for energy, it makes no sense to import oil to run an air conditioner in Chapel Hill if another energy source is closer at hand and can do the job just as well.

Feder took this idea seriously and proceeded to map three locally available sources of renewable energy - solar, wind, and micro-hydropower - at two sites in Centre County, Pa. Each of these can be generated at the household level, depending upon sun exposure, wind patterns and availability of flowing water.

Feder matched the availability of these power supplies to levels of consumption for local households. She found that the combination of these sources surpassed all household energy needs at one site. At the other, the trio fell short during the cold months of the year - but overall, they still met a large proportion of energy needs.

Feder's study, I should note, focused on one area in one state and doesn't address transportation and commercial demands for energy. But the strategy she applied to Centre County would work across the country.

During periods of surplus, household producers can sell power back to utility companies or gain power credits. Such household-based energy production carries the added bonus of making homeowners less vulnerable to power blackouts and widespread utility problems. That might sound pretty good to people across the Southeast who still lack power because of this fall's procession of hurricanes.

Wouldn't it be a relief to see a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that actually increased the security of our households, reduced our vulnerability to attacks on centralized or foreign energy production facilities and represented a turn toward a more thoughtful, responsible future?

That's one vision for which I'd like to hear my president say, "Bring it on!"

Contact David Havlick at havlick@email.unc.edu.

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