Friday, May 1, 2009

Renewable Energy: Not Just for our Wise Elders

Last night, I attended the May meeting of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden. The topic was "Climate Change and the Role of Concentrating Solar Power" and the speaker was Chuck Kutscher, principal engineer and manager of the Thermal Systems Group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and past chair of the American Solar Energy Society.

Dr. Kutscher spoke about solar energy technologies that can help us achieve sufficient base load generation for the nation's electricity needs while cutting our carbon emissions essentially to nil. His focus last night was concentrating solar power.

What struck me most about the meeting, however, was the average age of the attendee. I would say close to 100 people came to the presentation but no more than five or six were under 40. There is an incredible amount of data, statistics and insights available regarding the current course of global warming and climate change. Dr. Kutscher alluded several times to the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But successfully overcoming the challenges facing our planet will require a long-term effort and the generation of Americans that is only now entering the workforce will need to know as much as possible as soon as possible. So where were they last night?

Both Thomas Friedman in Hot, Flat and Crowded, and Auden Schendler in Getting Green Done address in no uncertain terms the variety of "feel-good" initiatiaves we have chosen to pursue as a society, while patting ourselves on the backs for doing it. Every magazine in the world, it seems, has a green issue out filled with tips and suggestions for how we can all make a personal difference in saving the planet. What bullshit! Friedman and Schendler suggest. And they are right. I wonder, though, if this low-hanging and ultimately unproductive fruit is what most of our younger professionals are drawn to.

It's no secret that engineers and technical specialists have been in short supply in this country for a long time. The work they do is decidedly unsexy, the value of entering these fields has not been sufficiently marketed, and younger generations have been increasingly drawn to other fields. Nevertheless, it is the technical professionals who will ultimately make the greatest contributions toward ending our reliance on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.

Younger professionals who choose to pursue only feel-good efforts won't save the planet. This generation must begin working NOW to develop the technical talent and familiarity with renewable technologies needed to make a real difference, no matter how unsexy it seems.

And yet...there were virtually none of these people at Dr. Kutscher's presentation last night...and that frightens me almost as much as the stark realities of climate change and global warming.

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