The Flyover

Sometimes air travel makes me think. Seeing America from thirty or forty thousand feet in the air occasionally triggers an “a-ha” moment if I let it.

This past week I flew up the east coast from Jacksonville to NYC and back to Florida via Atlanta. On the way north I realized, for the first time, just how hard it’s going to be to get America off the oil standard.

Beginning just north of Maryland, the coast is dotted with dozens – probably hundreds – of enormous cylindrical, white petroleum tanks. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen those tanks many times. I know, intellectually, that every one of those tanks represents jobs. It just never sunk in with me until this past week the impact of changing our energy focus will have on those jobs.

Depending on whether you believe the oil industry or the Bureau of Labor Statistics, somewhere between two and nine million people in the US work in the petroleum industry. Those are real, actual Americans working the rigs, watching the pipelines or the tracks, turning the oil into gasoline and trucking it out to the Kwik-E-Mart on your corner.

That includes everyone from the minimum wage worker at your local station to the CEO of Exxon/Mobil and everyone in-between.

Furthermore, nearly everyone with any securities investments has some money in the oil industry. That includes everyone from Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg to the guy patching potholes for your local city.

That’s the bad news.

But there’s good news as well. On the way home, I noticed something else entirely. Surrounding every urban core in America are concentric rings of suburbs layered and sprinkled with acres and acres of shopping malls, big-box stores and warehouses. That’s a detail you can’t miss from the air.

Every one of those malls, big-boxes and warehouses has great big flat roof. Which you could, if you were so-inclined, think of as a solar farm waiting to be planted. Millions of acres of solar farms. Waiting for American workers to install and maintain solar panels and all that entails through the energy chain.

As of 2013, the best estimate was that a thousand homes only need about 32 acres of solar installation to be fully-powered. That includes plugging in the electric cars we’ll all end up driving. The efficiency of solar panels is increasing consistently, shrinking the necessary acreage.

To be sure, breaking out of the oil standard is going to be expensive. People are going to have to learn how to do new things, and that’s going to be painful. But it’s necessary. Oil, as you know, is not only nasty, it’s limited. We will eventually run out of it. We’re going to have to get off the oil standard.

But it’s possible. An open mind – and a jetliner’s eye view – will convince you.

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