We’re hearing a lot these days about drilling for oil and natural gas off the South Carolina coast. Even as I write this, it sounds incredible — like hearing that we sold Fort Sumter to the Kulaks.

We may yet see oil derricks off the Grand Strand or Charleston Harbor, and if we do, we will have Henry Brown to thank. The first district congressman — with the aid of oil and gas lobbyists — has been quietly shepherding this boondoggle through Congress. This would be a tragedy on many levels, not least of which is the simple fact that it is so unnecessary.

There are solutions to America’s energy crisis that do not require raping South Carolina’s coast. The first, of course, is conservation — an idea that has never been tried. The second is alternative, homegrown energy. According to the Apollo Alliance for energy independence (apolloalliance.org), a crash program for sustainable energy independence would create three million jobs, free the nation from imported oil, and promote a healthier environment for the entire planet.

That’s old news in some quarters here in the Lowcountry, where two major alternative energy initiatives are gearing up.

Dr. Dennis C. Dinge is a Dorchester County native and associate professor of physics at Coastal Carolina University. His field is computer simulation, but his passion is wind energy. Right now Dinge is working with a broad consortium of agencies and institutions — including Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Coastal Carolina, and the S.C. Institute for Energy Studies at Clemson University — on a program to build offshore wind turbines, a.k.a. windmills.

“The coast of Georgia and South Carolina has advantages,” Dinge says. “There is a shallow coastal shelf and that makes it relatively easier and less expensive to build turbines here.”

The advantage of putting wind turbines offshore is that there is more wind out there, Dinge says. And the higher the turbine the better, because that’s where the stronger winds are. In the next few years we may see wind turbines 300 feet high, clustered in “wind farms” 15 to 20 miles off our coast. They are already at work in Denmark, Germany, and England. Dinge sees no reason why they couldn’t be working to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels.

There are still several technological, legal, and regulatory hurdles to be overcome. Toward that end, a symposium will be held in Charleston next spring, bringing together various governmental, academic, and entrepreneurial interests who have a stake in offshore wind energy.

Wind energy will hardly fill our current need for oil and gas, Dinge says, but it is a safe and reliable source of power that we cannot ignore. When a hurricane or a ship hits a wind turbine, there is no environmental disaster. And with General Electric in Greenville building wind turbines for offshore use, all the investment money would stay right here in the USA.

Over at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Vegetable Laboratory on Savannah Highway, Dr. Janice Bohac is working on a plan to turn sweet potatoes into fuel for your car. That’s right — sweet potatoes.

Bohac is a research geneticist who thinks this common storage root and Southern staple could be the answer to many of our energy problems. The starch and sugar of the common yam can be easily rendered into ethanol and used as an additive or replacement for gasoline. But unlike fossil fuel, it recycles existing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; it does not release carbon dioxide that has been trapped under ground for millions of years.

The sweet potato is the seventh largest food crop in the world and it is extremely resistant to insects, meaning that it can be grown without the expense or risk of heavy insecticide use. Most importantly, the sweet potato thrives in hot climates, making it an ideal crop for cultivation in the Southeast. The biofuel industry has been a boon to the Midwestern corn farmer; now it’s the Southern sweet potato farmer’s turn.

Like Dinge, Bohac thinks the federal policy is the main thing holding back the development of alternative fuels. Congress subsidizes the oil and gas industries with billions of dollars a year. If a small part of those billions were channeled into R&D for alternative energy, we would be on our way toward solving America’s energy crisis.

But the corporations that run Congress and the White House don’t want to talk about alternative energy. That’s why they insist we start looking for oil and gas off the Southeastern coast.

Henry Brown and the oil industry represent the past. They are old thinking and old technology. They are enslaving our country to foreign interests and destroying our biosphere. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

“We have some of the best brains and entrepreneurs in the world,” Bohac says. “We can solve this problem.”

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