Green Light Turns Yellow

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Historians call the period from 1876 to 1905 the Second Industrial Revolution in America. Here’s a quick rundown of the innovations that remade the nation in this 30-year span:

1876 — Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone.

1879 — Thomas Edison invents the incandescent light bulb.

1892 — Rudolf Diesel patents the diesel engine.

1899 — Marconi invents the wireless.

1903 — The Wright Brothers make the first successful flight over Kitty Hawk, NC.

Within a few years of these developments, most Americans could sit down in their armchairs, turn on their reading lamps, pick up the phone and make a reservation to travel across the country on an airplane.

We are now going through a similar period of innovation and high expectations. Homeowners across the country are thinking about the feasibility of installing a wind turbine in their driveway or covering the roof of their house with solar shingles. The age of alternative energy has arrived.

But while individuals are taking the lead in making green energy part of their everyday lives, our government seems to have lost its mojo to Do Big Things.

In recent months, the United States has moved to the front burner its effort to power our economy with alternative energy. The federal government has put its full weight behind the fast-tracking of an assortment of mega-projects to build huge wind farms, solar arrays and the beginning of a national renewable energy power grid. The national energy strategy, as enunciated by the Obama Administration, embraces all forms of alternative energy, including hydropower, geothermal energy and nuclear power.

Regardless of the lingering debate on global warming (a.k.a. climate change), there seems to be a solidifying consensus that the conversion to renewable energy is a top national priority.

But opposition to a fast-track conversion suddenly has emerged from some surprising (and not-so-surprising) quarters. The opponents all have their own particular concerns, but these may cumulatively succeed in flashing a yellow caution signal on the fast track to a green energy future.

As reported in this space, the first big alt energy counteroffensive came from the U.S. military. A bevy of Air Force generals fired off a heat-seeking missile from the Pentagon aimed at the heart of the burgeoning wind power sector.

The Air Force declared that giant U.S.-based wind turbines pose a threat to national security. According to the top brass at the Pentagon, the radar signature of a giant windmill looks like an aircraft (with propellers, we assume) or a strange weather formation. This might cause a distraction to pilot training in U.S. skies, they say. In the worst-case scenario, an array of giant turbines at major U.S. wind farms now under construction might convince NORAD that a battalion of propeller-driven enemy bombers is sweeping across the Great Lakes, prompting countermeasures including a missile barrage which could destroy Cleveland as well as the menacing wind towers. No, we are not making this up.

The Pentagon’s concerns reportedly have delayed nearly half the planned wind-power megawatt capacity in the U.S. from coming online since the beginning of 2009.

This week comes word that Native Americans are challenging the government’s plans to build huge solar energy installations in our Western deserts. Tribal leaders say these massive arrays of solar panels threaten their cultural heritage and infringe on ground that is sacred to them.

The proposed expansion of hydropower, meanwhile, has run into the belated recognition that many of the huge dams we have constructed on several of our most powerful rivers have pushed some of our favorite river denizens — think wild salmon — to the brink of extinction.

Nuclear energy? Well, let’s just say there still are some major hurdles to overcome before reactors proliferate across the landscape and deliver clean energy to millions. How to build a nuclear power plant for less than $2 billion and where to put the radioactive waste generated by nuke plants (it will still be radioactive 40,000 years from now) are at the top of the list of questions, followed by the ongoing problem of those guys living in caves who want to deliver a message to the civilized world that ends in a mushroom-shaped exclamation point.

We know there’s a lot of geothermal energy under America. Unfortunately, much of it is buried in places we really don’t want to rip apart, like Yellowstone Park.

Even after all of these concerns are addressed, experts say that our most ambitious alternative energy goals–including the creation of a national smart grid–could be delayed for years while required environmental permits are adjudicated. It would be depressingly ironic if the regulations we put in place to protect the environment prevent us from quickly ushering in the biggest improvement in the environment we have ever attempted, our national conversion to alternative energy.

But if our past is prologue, we have reason to hope. Once everybody in the country wanted to use Mr. Edison’s light bulb, power lines snaked into every village and hamlet. These lines were attached to the wooden poles that then permitted us to use Mr. Bell’s contraption to call grandma in West Virginia, and many, many years later, to watch something called cable television.

So perhaps our newest revolution will kick into high gear the same way the original American transformation got going in 1776. One if by land and two if by sea, and I on my roof shall be….installing solar shingles.

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