My apologies to Energy Secretary Steven Chu. While appearing on "The Charlie Rose Show" Monday night, he did correct himself in mid-sentence, just after saying that "somewhere in the world the wind is shining," with the correct formulation: "the wind is blowing, and the sun is shining."
But I like his malapropism better. Because once we have implemented a truly smart electricity grid along the lines of what Chu has proposed, the sun can blow and the wind can shine and we just don't care. It will all be fungible electricity, delivered where we need it and when we need it.
Since his nomination as Energy Secretary, I have been unable to stop stalking Chu's various public appearances, mainly because even now, almost two months into the Obama administration, it still comes as a delighted shock to hear a cabinet secretary talking about energy efficiency and climate change and renewable energy as if these were serious issues about which something must be done.
For the most part, Chu did not tell Charlie Rose anything that he hadn't told the senators at his confirmation hearing or said in other venues. But he did address a timely topic -- the challenge of pushing renewable energy at at a time when oil prices have fallen back down to (relative) lows. Rose observed that back during the energy crises of the late 1970s, there had been a push for conservation and efficiency and the development of alternative sources of energy. But as soon as the price of oil collapsed, so did the resolve to put the U.S. energy economy on a stronger, more sustainable footing.
Are we witnessing a rerun? The economics of ethanol have tanked, the solar and wind power industries are facing consolidation and tightened margins in a down economy, and hybrids are much less popular with gasoline at $2 dollars a gallon than $4. Must we wait until oil prices spike again before we start to feel anxiety levels rise again?
Chu offered two reasons to bolster the case that "times are different." First, there will undoubtedly be significantly higher global demand for energy in the future because the developing world will want "to share in the prosperity that we enjoy in developed countries." Second: "there's a new 800-pound gorilla in the room, let's be frank about this, and this is that most scientists agree that the carbon emissions that humans are responsible for have, in fact, begun to change our climate."
Back in the days of the Carter administration, China was just emerging from the throes of the Cultural Revolution and yet to begin its astonishing economic growth trajectory. India, likewise, was an economic backwater. And very, very few people were worried about their carbon footprint. Times have changed. Dare we call it "progress?"