Energy independence is an idea whose time has come, and gone, and come again.
Going back 40 or so years ago, a relatively new international cartel known as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC for short, got the attention of the U.S. and the western world in general by fixing the price of crude oil.
The results were lines at gas stations, a form of gasoline rationing where vehicles could be filled on alternating days depending on whether a license plate number was odd or even, and, most irritating, a substantial increase in the price of a gallon of gasoline.
Other energy costs also increased and there was talk of mixing alcohol with gasoline to produce "gasohol," and there was something of a solar power movement. The solar panels of the day were primitive, essentially amounting to water pipes running through boxes painted black for pre-heating. Bringing water up a few degrees would reduce the amount of energy needed to bring it to a final temperature.
There were government subsidies and rebates for various energy-saving efforts, and a few solar systems were installed here and there.
Things change. By the mid-1980s, there was still talk of energy independence, but nothing came of it. If anything, the U.S. became more dependent on foreign sources of energy. Solar power? Interest generally faded.
Then came Gulf Wars and the Hurricane Katrina threat to Gulf of Mexico production and refineries. Energy prices went up and have stayed up and energy independence is once again on the minds of a lot of people, and it is possible to see evidence on rooftops across Harford County.
In their hundreds, homeowners have been installing solar panels on their roofs and applying for local government incentives – mainly tax credits.
The technology is a good deal more advanced than the pipes and black paint of 1972, but it also is expensive. The costs associated with installing a new system aren't likely to be recovered in gas, electric or oil savings for at least a few years, if not longer. Tax incentives and other government subsidies help take the sting out of the cost.
Realistically, it's something that should never have been left to languish for so long. Oil is a finite resource and an awful lot of it is controlled by governments whose relationships with this country are, to put it mildly, fickle.
Last time around, the practicality of making it a national priority to put U.S. ingenuity into solar power and other renewable energy sources would end up being dismissed as the namby-pamby way out. Energy policy and energy independence are issues that are vital to the future well-being of the nation, and, as such, practical solutions that require a bit of government support to get started are well worth pursuing.
It may seem backward in a country that prides itself in the free market, but the energy market is hardly a free one. An important segment of the oil and natural gas produced in this country comes from underneath public lands and waters. Sure the drillers pay fees for the right to access it, but it's important to keep in mind that the oil started out as public property.
Then there's nuclear energy, which came into widespread use only because the federal government spent so much on research and development.
With this in mind, government subsidies and tax breaks to help solar power take root can be seen as reasonably leveling the playing field and giving a permanent energy solution a fair shot at a segment of the market.
If we play this right, the next time there's a problem with not enough energy being produced overseas, it won't be a problem locally, thanks to things like solar panels on rooftops.