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Making Energy Visible, And Why It Matters

Four years ago, when I began writing a book about renewable energy, I knew as much about the topic as the next reasonably intelligent person. That is to say, not much at all. But the deeper I got into the project the more I began to understand why. Namely, because for all intents and purposes, energy is invisible. Flick a switch and the lights turn on, presto! Plug in your iPhone and in an hour or so … viola! All juiced up and ready to go.  

And that’s a problem, because the less we know about something like energy, the more likely we are to use and abuse it in ways with long-reaching, harmful consequences. We’ve been so reliant on fossil fuels for so long that it’s easy to conclude that there will never be any viable alternatives. That’s pretty much what I assumed before writing this book. But the more I learned, the more I saw when visiting renewable (and conventional) power plants and speaking with the scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs at the forefront of renewable energy research and development, energy became for me less a vague concept and more a tangible, visible reality with very real consequences for me, my kids, and for future generations. 

So why does this matter? Why should you care? Here’s what I wrote in the Introduction:

“The subject of Energy with a capital E is so big, so complex and overwhelming, that it often seems impossible to get a handle on the myriad crises and challenges facing us as we tentatively begin to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable alternatives. After all, unless you’re a high-powered scientist or CEO, what can one person actually do to sway the course of events? The answer is that you and I can make a difference, and the first step toward being more than merely a passive observer or ignorant consumer is to learn what renewable energy is really about: how it’s evolved, where it’s headed, why it matters, and how it’s already changing the world.”

Four years later, I still believe that. My goal for the book was to help make energy visible by telling stories about it--about 19th and early 20th century solar energy pioneers August Mouchot and Frank Shuman; about hanging out at a wind power expo in Texas; about efforts to tap the power of Manhattan’s East River using cutting-edge, underwater turbines. My hope is that these (and many other) stories will not only entertain and inform but also inspire readers to take action: perhaps by investing in (ever-increasingly affordable) rooftop solar panels or a residential geothermal heating and cooling system; or by feeling motivated to advocate for state and federal energy policies that push for more renewable source; or even simply by parlaying greater understanding of where energy comes from and how it’s made into using it more judiciously.

Jeremy Shere is the author of RENEWABLE: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy by Jeremy Shere. Read an excerpt here

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