Do you remember when oil blew through the $50-a-barrel mark? The anguish and fear were palpable. The markets shuddered. After crude first crossed the $60 line in 2005, oil companies were called to testify in Washington. A national panic seemed to be setting in.
As of this writing, oil is north of $80 a barrel. If the panic is muted—we Americans can get used to anything, apparently—the fact remains that cheap oil, or at least what we now think of as cheap, is gone and unlikely to come back soon.
That's painful, economically. A $10-per-barrel hike is said to trim as much as 0.4% from GDP in the United States annually, or roughly $50 billion. For individuals, it is a regressive cost, falling hardest on those with the least resources. For businesses, too, it is a brutal tax, with the proceeds going not to public education or social programs or health care but to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and Russia.
Yet there is one positive side effect: Suddenly a wide range of alternative-energy ideas has become economically viable. And maybe—just maybe—we'll finally be pushed to embrace the kind of innovation in our energy infrastructure that has long been discussed but only sporadically pursued.
More efficient and renewable energy techniques have existed for decades—starting with solar—but market forces have limited their widespread use. Oil was simply cheaper. Even today, despite record-high oil costs and a (presumably) motivated market, many businesses and individuals resist a better, more evolved energy strategy just because it is different.
Now different is finally becoming appealing. This issue's cover story, "Motorhead Messiah," about Johnathan Goodwin and the potential of diesel-based auto engines, looks at one such opportunity—using parts and technology available to all automakers. Crucially for an American audience, Goodwin's breakthroughs mean that no one has to sacrifice a love of big vehicles or powerful torque to get vastly better mileage and lower emissions.
Elsewhere in this issue, in "50 Ways to Green Your Business," we highlight major companies' embrace of energy conservation and other sustainability initiatives. It is both a cause for celebration and a call to action: If these companies can change, with demonstrable results, what would happen if we all did?
This magazine is dedicated to using ideas and creativity to build a future that's better than the past. We're on the cusp of something special with energy use. Graduating to that new model may be expensive now. But that's what investment is all about.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.