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Self-perpetuating Crises

Bush's new budget plan would cut alternative energy research by $200 million.



To many Americans the rolling blackouts in California and skyrocketing prices for heating and automobile fuel prove that the country is in the grip of an energy crisis.

To solve the "crisis," President Bush wants to probe our national lands for new oil reserves, build more power plants (and decrease emission standards of those already online), dirtying our environment and furthering our national addiction to oil.

But there are alternatives, even in Tennessee. A coalition of 20 environmental groups recently sponsored a cross-state tour of conservation and alternate energy programs to prove the United States has options beyond an increased dependency on oil.

"President Bush could get up there and preach about conservation or alternative energy and America would listen," says Jeff Barrie, part of the energy tour. "But he is an oilman and a businessman and he's going to choose options that support his interests."

The energy tour took off from Memphis in two cars -- a fuel- efficient Saturn sedan and a sport utility vehicle -- to highlight the disparity in gas consumption on America's highways. The Saturn got 33 miles to the gallon, compared to a little over 21.7 for the SUV. Barrie says that while technology to increase fuel efficiency has improved over the years, our gas mileage average has actually decreased since 1988 due to the popularity of larger vehicles.

The energy tour's first stop was Shelby County's Macon Elementary School, where a student-led conservation effort saved the school $300 on its February power bill. After learning about energy and conservation in their science class, teacher Jane Hobson says the students attended a speech by the secretary of energy, who gave them the title "energy ambassadors" and information about how to cut consumption at their school.

"They got T-shirts and went around the school doing spot- checks, getting teachers and students to turn off computers and lights," Hobson says. "They would leave little happy- or sad-faced stickers for good and bad uses of energy."

The students are also angered at the thought of disturbing the caribou living in Alaska's 2-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) when other cleaner, more sustainable options are available. Barrie agrees, saying the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the oil field in the ANWR would provide only about 3.2 billion barrels of oil -- less than a six-month supply for America at our current rate of consumption.

Another school the tour visited in Dyer County was equipped by the Tennessee Valley Authority with solar panels as part of its pilot program, Green Power Switch. The program is a success; the solar panels provide two to three times the power the school needs.

The tour also stopped at Johnson County High School to link alternative energy resources, the economy, and the environment. The school's geothermal system taps the constant 53-degree temperature several feet below the earth's surface to lessen heating demands during the winter and cool buildings during the summer. The system has resulted in significant energy and cost savings, says teacher Kenneth McQueen. The school is paying only $400 per month as opposed to the $1,000 per month it spent using only propane.

"America's energy solutions are here in East Tennessee," Barrie says. "Geothermal technology holds tremendous potential in reducing America's energy demands with minimal impact on the environment. Drilling in the ANWR is not an energy solution, and I hope that Senators Thompson and Frist can see the alternatives. If we invest more in our clean energy resources, we'll keep our economy strong, create more jobs for Tennesseans, pay less to heat and cool our homes, clean our air, and meet our energy needs."

In Chattanooga, Advanced Vehicle System, Inc., is designing and building buses that use an electric motor combined with natural gas or diesel fuel to produce what Barrie calls "the cleanest bus in the world." In use in Chattanooga and all over the world, the buses not only use fuel more efficiently but reduce the need for automobiles.

At a gas station, of all places, Barrie says he met a man using underground temperatures to air-condition houses, which costs up to 70 percent less than traditional methods. The system uses large copper pipes buried in the yard to channel cool air and can pay for itself in energy savings in only three or four years.

The energy tour also looked at companies making more efficient fuel from corn, fuel-cell technology, and super-efficient lighting. Others in Tennessee are using passive solar architecture, harnessing energy from the wind, and exploring the use of hydrogen as a fuel, according to Barrie.

While individuals and companies throughout Tennessee and the nation are pursuing smart energy solutions, getting the federal government involved would help the U.S. wean itself from its oil dependency sooner, Barrie says. The federal government could turn the tide in energy consumption by simply promoting conservation and providing tax incentives for renewable energy industries.

Instead, Bush's budget proposes a $200 million cut in renewable energy alternatives, enriching oil investors and executives while the majority of Americans foot the bill.

"Right now we are at a turning point," Barrie says. "We can foster a rate of energy consumption that's not sustainable or we can pursue other options. The energy crunch might be bad today, but I see a harsher future in 10 or 20 years when our oil reserves begin to dry up."

You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at

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