If ever there was a time to get off of oil and plug into offshore wind power, it is now, argues Mike Tidwell, a clean-energy activist and veteran journalist with deep roots in the bayou.
But I don't think we're headed that way with energy, not with the timely arrival of offshore wind and other renewable sources. Europe already has 38 offshore commercial wind farms in operation. Cape Wind could be up and running within 24 months, and many more projects will soon follow. Polls, meanwhile, show U.S. public support for new drilling is fading, and virtually every politician who once chanted "Drill, baby, drill" now fantasizes about owning a time-travel machine.
Here's what really inspires me. Former Vice President Al Gore sounded the alarm on global warming with his brilliant 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth. But the film was criticized for being short on solutions. So afterward Gore hosted a series of high-profile "solution summits" around the globe involving the best and brightest minds from the renewable energy world. In 2008, equipped with input from CEOs and engineers and scientists, Gore toured the United States, communicating what he had learned. America, he declared, has the ability to switch entirely to clean, renewable electricity within 10 short years. We already have all the essential technology we need, he said. Ten years. Along the way we can electrify a big part of our automobile fleet, Gore and others have said, charging the car batteries mostly during off-peak hours without overburdening the grid.
Having spent the past 10 years focused on clean energy, motivated by what I saw in the Gulf, I'm certain we can achieve this goal. There are challenges before us, of course. We need a strong national cap on CO2 pollution that steers energy markets away from carbon and toward offshore wind and other solutions (see images in "Power Play," above). We need a national integrated electrical grid, a "smart grid," that can effectively distribute the fluctuating supply of wind and solar power on a large scale.
And we're making progress. The nation's economic stimulus plan includes a robust $3.4 billion to develop a smart grid. My state of Maryland, among others, has begun investing in statewide refueling stations for electric vehicles. Maryland could get the lion's share of its future electricity from offshore wind, too, according to a February report from the highly respected Abell Foundation in Baltimore.
But as a nation, can we do it? Can we get off oil--or nearly so--in a decade or less? Can we fully develop resources like our windy East Coast in time?
Richard Garvine, a professor of marine studies at the University of Delaware before his passing in 2007, coauthored the study that year that first catalogued the staggering wind potential of the Mid-Atlantic Bight. Developing this 50,000-square-mile region into its full potential, he said, is not a matter of technology. It's a matter of national will.
"The United States began producing 2,000 warplanes per year in 1939 for World War II," Garvine said. "[We] increased production each year, and by 1946 had sent 257,000 aircraft into service. We did that in seven years, using 1940s technology."
Seventy years later we need to protect our shores again from attack. We just need another big dream--a self-preserving vision--to make it so.
Mike Tidwell is the author of Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast (Vintage). He is also the executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.