For every dip in gasoline prices, there’s always an upswing. Although Americans have cheered the past few months of cheap fuel, we cannot lose sight of the fact that fossil fuels are a detriment to society. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fifth assessment. Over the years, the scientific report’s tone has changed from slightly skeptical to near certainty: Human actions are causing climate change. A new era of renewable energy must be initiated, and a collective vision of a fair energy future is possible.
The current economic model plays a huge role in maintaining our interest in fossil fuels. Industry depends on this potent, cheap source of energy. The reality of fossil fuels, however, reflects that their affordability is artificial. Externalities are an abstract quantification of unaccounted costs. Health risks created by air pollution, for example, are dropped from the cost equation. If the externalities of fossil fuels were accounted for, the costs would hardly be worth the gain. A study by Germany’s Dresden University of Technology estimated that gasoline should be taxed $4.36 per gallon to account for externalities on social impact. That’s an additional fee, which would bring current American prices to $6.50 per gallon.
Why is the price of gas so cheap right now? Other developing nations have recognized the external costs of fossil fuels and begun the transition to alternative energy systems. Simple supply and demand models reveal that low demand and high supply are providing Americans with an excess of cheap fossil fuels. Despite steep externalities, fossil fuels are actually subsidized by the federal government, further driving down the price. This makes it difficult for alternative forms of energy to compete in the market.
Cheap oil damages our society by concentrating wealth and power into the hands of a select few. Those who control the energy industry lack environmental and social responsibility. The recent strike by the United Steelworkers union has risen awareness for the poor working conditions in oil refineries. Difficulty in reaching an agreement for safe conditions and fair wages attests to the greed of fossil fuel companies.
An alternative energy system is not only necessary, but also inevitable. Foremost, the energy grid is aging and will have to be replaced. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision in December to ban fracking has opened the floodgates for alternative energy options. The New York State Public Service Commission (NYPSC) has responded to this opportunity by initiating the Reforming the Energy Vision (REV). REV aims to design new energy markets that stray from the old age of fossil fuels.
A decentralized, renewable energy system would provide a new framework for a sustainable energy future. Alliance for a Green Economy (AGREE) is an organization pushing for this change. Micro grids, in contrast to the centralized grid structure, could facilitate local energy autonomy. AGREE proposes an “energy democracy” that gives neighborhoods the power to own renewable energy projects and contribute to decision making processes.
This opening of energy opportunity has raised a call to action for all New Yorkers. Across the state, REV is calling for public hearings. People have the power to bring energy autonomy into their communities, but they need to speak up. On Thursday, Feb. 12, an information session and public hearing will be held at the Binghamton City Hall at 6 p.m., with representatives from the NYPSC present to hear testimony. I strongly encourage people to attend and speak about the need for renewable energy future with local control of systems. We can sit idly in traffic waiting for gas prices to go up, or we can join the movement for a clean energy future.