So here’s a proposal that will never get traction, although it should:
Make energy a mandatory, stand alone course in all American high schools.
Why? Glad you asked.
Energy is probably one of the most discussed, and least understood topics in our public conversation. It is also the most important input into the wealth and productivity of the United States. If energy becomes scarce and overly costly, it can devastate our economy and have horrible personal consequences for those individuals struggling to heat their homes. Countries have gone to war over access to energy resources in the past, and the future is not yet writ. But access to energy is the lifeblood of empire.
Furthermore, energy consumption, whether we like it or not, releases billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with our current fuel mix. There is no debate about the byproducts of combustion of carbon-based fuels. None.
While there may be debate about whether the release of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere is in fact affecting the atmosphere, the relocation of insect, plant and tree species, the acidification of the ocean waters, melting glacial sheets and the increasingly common severe weather events worldwide strongly suggest that we have a problem.
And as the worldwide demand for energy increases, understanding how to manage and reduce energy use will be a necessary survival skill for any smart citizen not wishing to waste the wealth of their family on gas, oil and coal.
But how can we have a reasonable discussion of smart energy use and smart energy policy without fundamentally understanding where our energy comes from, how it is consumed, and what the consequences of using it are? We can’t. Because without this common knowledge, misinformation can and will poison the well of public debate.
Consider how you would answer these questions:
- Does the average American know approximately how many kilowatt hours of electricity they consume each year?
- How about gallons of heating fuel oil or therms on natural gas?
- Does the average American know approximately how much fuel must be burned at a power plant to deliver a kilowatt-hour of energy to their house? Do they know the associated carbon emissions?
- Does the average American know how many pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted when burning a gallon of gasoline?
- Does the average American know the approximate chemical formulas for natural gas, oil and coal?
- Does the average American understand how coal, oil and natural gas burn in the presence of oxygen?
- Does the average American have a feel for how much energy they could save through energy conservation activities like efficient light bulbs, insulation and weather-stripping, shading, and so on?
- Does the average American know where our fuels come from, and how they are processed and then transported to our homes?
I would tend to guess the answer to most of these questions is “no”, which is crazy when you look at the perilous condition of the economy and our growing need to compete in a global marketplace.
So what would an energy curriculum look like?