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American Exceptionalism and Renewable Energy: What the Tea Party Missed in 2011

In the political gladiator wars within the U.S. parties, there is mostly heated mud-slinging. This fighting may make great sound bites, but it doesn't make much sense. Republicans are attacking everything "green" mainly because the president has made "green" a major theme of his administration. But many republicans over the decades have embraced green: If you heard former California republican Governor Schwarzenegger speak recently at the ACORE dinner or sitting Governor Haley Barbour (former head of the Republican National Committee) speak about the new biofuel and PV manufacturing plants in Mississippi, you'd wonder what all the fuss is about.

But with the end of 2011, it’s time we address the issue of “American Exceptionalism” that many within the republican party have been touting. I want to say loud and clear that I, too, strongly believe in American Exceptionalism.  Immigrants from most every country have moved to America since its founding, and while some came as indentured servants, prisoners, and slaves, most left their homelands for a new start or religious, economic and personal freedoms. 

With that independence, vision and fortitude, our democracy has blossomed — with some hiccups — and we are one of the freest countries on this planet, with open exchanges of ideas, and the most unencumbered media.

But wait, that’s not all.

American Exceptionalism about the environment is one of the shining stars of our democracy.

The Road So Far

The environmental movement came after a groundswell of popular clamor in the 1970’s following civil rights movement turmoil. From the book release of Silent Spring to the celebration of Earth Day, the movement drove the political process kicking and screaming for the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. This was the first time a country put teeth into environmental legislation and established enforceable standards — and the rest of the world is following our lead. Public school students pushed for recycling against multimillion-dollar campaigns by the glass, bottling, and plastic industries. And today, almost every local government and large business recycles — it has become a societal norm. 

The United States became the unparalleled leader in renewable energy from the space program in the 1960’s when PV panels were used on early satellites. The U.S. has had the largest concentrated solar plants, the largest wind turbines and wind farms, and the most geothermal plants. 

And contrary to recent media accounts, these industries are growing — from biofuel innovations to leaps in marine tidal, wave and freeflow generation; astounding advances in battery energy storage, to super capacitors to compressed storage; and cutting edge efficiency technologies from LEDs to CHP.  The U.S. is not only a world leader with more than 100 new manufacturing plants that opened in the last three years, but it is still the cauldron of innovation that sets us apart. Again, American Exceptionalism. 

Over the last few years, the Department of Defense has earned publicity for its use of biofuels in planes and tanks, net zero energy and water military bases, and hybrid renewable systems at forward operating bases. In the national security seminars I have co-facilitated at National Defense University over the years, we have had generals and base commanders, intelligence directors, and security analysts re-affirm the need for on-site, reliable energy without the need for logistics, heat or noise signatures. The U.S. leads the world in utilizing the depth and breadth of high value energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to meet their mission — defense of our country. Just another step in American Exceptionalism.

A REN21 report released in November 2011 by the Worldwatch Institute concluded that over $250 billion of private sector investment in 2010 went towards renewable energy, with similar conclusions by Pew and Bloomberg. The New York Times reported on studies that discovered how photovoltaics are surpassing nuclear affordability, while wind farms are competitive with natural gas and coal plants. Again, this shows how exceptional we have become. 

The Road Ahead

But while I am optimistic about what America and countries around the world can contribute, we have some very stark challenges ahead.

In December 2011, Russian scientists reported a chilling event regarding our changing climate. According to The Independent

Dramatic and unprecedented plumes of methane – a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide – have been seen bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean by scientists undertaking an extensive survey of the region. The scale and volume of the methane release has astonished the head of the Russian research team who has been surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years. 

Igor Semiletov, of the Far Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the Independent that he has never before witnessed the scale and force of the methane being released from beneath the Arctic seabed. 

‘Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of meters in diameter. This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 meters in diameter. It's amazing,’ Dr Semiletov said. ‘I was most impressed by the sheer scale and high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them.’ Scientists estimate that there are hundreds of millions of tons of methane gas locked away beneath the Arctic permafrost, which extends from the mainland into the seabed of the relatively shallow sea of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Just this year, we gained and surpassed the seven-billionth person on our planet. And according to a February 2011 report from the American Lung Association, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) has surpassed stroke as the third leading cause of death in the United States — and a major culprit is emissions from diesel fuels and coal.

And my interdisciplinary GWU course on sustainable energy this year concluded that 24 peer-reviewed studies over the last three years show the world can meet most or all energy needs through the use of high-value energy efficiency and renewable energy that is commercially-available today. And guess what? Most of those studies were conducted by American academic, think tank, and laboratory sources. Yes, American Exceptionalism rising to the occasion. 

So at the end of 2011, I am weary of the political gladiator wars, mud wrestling and intemperate comments.  I stand by the basic values that we are all Americans and we are worth listening to.  I am unabashedly proud of where our country has stood in environmental and technology leadership, in spite of global climate change denial. But while the feds are stymied, state and local governments are moving forward to address the climate, environmental and renewable energy challenges. We need to acknowledge them and “keep on plugging.”

We owe it to those before us who worked in the sweatshops, on the farms and in the factories, who fought for our freedoms to keep the vision, be exceptional and move our own country along into the next generation of energy sources for our national security and economic well-being. But don’t fall for the swan song that American Exceptionalism draws from the past. Remind those pontificators that the “Exceptionalism” was a dogged individualism with the highest doses of innovation and science — not deniers or those looking in the rearview mirror.

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