The End of ‘Malaise’

The United States is on the path to becoming a clean energy superpower. So why do we still talk about energy like it’s 1979?

Sam O’Hare of Aero Film tells the story America’s brightening energy future in this dazzling CG video featuring Tesla Motors. Click to view.

Last August, an essay in Fortune by Jigar Shah and Raj Pannu laid bare the basic problem of the green energy movement: its image has never wholly recovered from its association with hippies. The piece wastes no time dissecting this folly:

Clean, renewable, alternative: take your pick. Clean energy in the United States has been defined by earnest environmentalists who, to their credit, embraced it wholeheartedly, but, to our collective detriment, spun an ideological, naïve story divorced from the reality of the energy economy transformation actually taking shape around us.

It’s a jolting pronouncement. But if it hurt feelings, it also helped clean a wound that’s been festering since the seventies. Almost overnight, clean energy has become a legitimate economic engine presaging smarter, more resilient infrastructure, yet the mainstream narrative remains defined by events that predate the cell phone.

Carter, Reagan, and energy conservation

Let’s be real: energy has never gripped the American psyche in quite the same way as, say, the NFL, the Apollo missions, or the Second Amendment. We have a general idea that we should do more with less energy and — eventually, somehow — meet this smaller demand with cleaner forms of it. But the notion has been expressed with less pointedness and élan — or Elon, if you like — than it truly deserves. The reasons why have less to do with our current political mood, believe it or not, than that of forty-five years ago.

Energy conservation in particular is a clever piece of political coding. Jimmy Carter, in whose cabinet the Energy Department first appeared, promulgated an ethos of collective and personal sacrifice easily caricatured by Ronald Reagan as needless “shivering in the dark.” Reagan, who had urged TV viewers to “live better electrically” toward a “richer, fuller, more satisfying life” during his tenure as a General Electric pitchman, offered up an unapologetically sanguine counter-vision in his campaign. From the 1980 election onward, it was clear who owned the energy narrative.

Sophistication over sacrifice

That bullish, red-blooded, can-do American narrative is ripe for appropriation. Shah and Pannu point out that the solar industry has created nearly one in 80 new jobs since the 2008 crash, that wind now supplies five percent of the country’s electricity, and that billions is being raised and deployed annually in the U.S. cleantech sector.

Meanwhile, sophisticated battery-powered cars and home energy systems that could wring greater efficiency from the electric grid loom on the horizon. In California, a new utility program aims to purchase energy savings from homeowners using smart meter data. Some thirty states have passed legislation permitting cost-saving home and business upgrades to be financed through property tax assessments. Contrary to the tone of Carter’s pleading homilies, few of the million-plus households that have installed a rooftop solar system to date, or the 97,000 that have improved their properties’ value and efficiency with a tax loan, would say they sacrificed much to do so.

A city-owned 3.3-kilowatt solar canopy shades picnic tables in Medford, Ore. | Griffin Hagle

Green buildings — a microcosm of the movement

Even within this world of rapid innovation and economic growth, however, frontiers remain. Buildings, especially houses, are a microcosm of the green energy movement in that their performance is not widely understood by most people within the movement itself, even those with the best intentions to improve them.

Recently, my colleague Ryan Boswell and I wrote about many states’ failures to adopt codes for energy use in new homes. In existing homes, rebates have similarly failed to kickstart credible demand for retrofits. Now, a growing crop of consumer devices from manufacturers such as Amazon, Ecobee, and Nest promises to shed new light on how our homes perform by measuring everything from air pollution to cooling efficiency. Some even let the local utility adjust them remotely to ensure enough grid capacity during peak load times.

These devices certainly have an appropriate place, but just as fitness trackers can’t replace nutrition and exercise (especially once they find their way into the kitchen junk drawer), we shouldn’t count on gadgets to rescue us from poorly constructed buildings. The tough, dirty work that skilled men and women do in attics and crawlspaces — air sealing, insulation, moisture control, and empirical examination of the results — is far more important and potentially impactful to our economy. (The national market for home energy upgrades is estimated at $150 billion.) To expect otherwise is the same kind of wishful thinking that shot clean energy in the foot decades ago.

Telling better stories

Last week, at the Habitat X sustainable-housing think tank in Montana, I presented a series of excerpts from establishment journalism illustrating the country’s toddling but momentous steps toward a brighter future. My goal was to challenge the creaky narrative that green energy and building is an alternative movement fundamentally incompatible with the fast-buck American economy. As support for that argument goes, it’s hard to beat Bill McKibben’s take on a case study in Vermont for The New Yorker:

I’ve travelled the world writing about and organizing against climate change, but, standing in the Borkowskis’ kitchen and looking at their electric bill, I felt a fairly rare emotion: hope. … The Borkowskis’ house is not an Aspen earth shelter made of adobe and old tires, built by a former software executive who converted to planetary consciousness at Burning Man. It’s an utterly plain house, with Frozen bedspreads and One Direction posters, inhabited by a working-class family of four, two rabbits, and a parakeet named Oliver. It sits in a less than picturesque neighborhood, in a town made famous in recent years for its heroin problem. Its significance lies in its ordinariness.

When McKibben, notorious for his jeremiads, says he feels hope, it’s time to feel hopeful. His pointed dig at counterculture shows just how far toward the mainstream the pendulum has already swung. He has the confidence to give the numbers — the family financed an 88% reduction in energy consumption through their utility bill — but the good sense to realize they aren’t the real story.

The transformation of this 94–year-old home in Rutland, Vt. foreshadows the mainstreaming of green energy. | Nina Keck

As we reach this turning point in our energy conversation, there’s no room for complacency. Reclaiming a narrative is always an act of daring, and the best lesson we can take from the past half-century is that we must dare to tell better stories. The times we live in demand no less.

Our ability to come so far, so fast on clean energy is a hallmark of our greatness. Regardless of whatever febrile gibberish is spouted to the contrary, one look at the past, recent or distant, reveals the truth: America is greater than it has ever been.