The Mission: Clean Energy

I POKE MY HEAD OVER the edge of the loft, where my granddaughter Julie is packing her duffle bag.

“Almost done, Water Woman? We need to get going in fifteen minutes.”

“Almost,” she answers. “But, Gramps, have you seen my rock collection from the beach? I want to take some of them home.”

“I think I saw them out on the deck. I’ll check.”

I climb back down the ladder the kids use to get to their sleeping space when they’re visiting us here on Cape Cod. Julie’s older brother, Tom, is already packed. The two children have spent the whole summer here at my place on Pleasant Bay, and now they’re headed back to their home near Boston to start the school year.

Tom, Julie, and I have been doing the kinds of stuff that families all around the Cape do in summertime: boogie boarding on the ocean waves, sailing on the bay, picnicking on the outer beach, digging clams, watching the July Fourth fireworks, and lying on the lawn on warm summer nights, looking for shooting stars.

But the three of us have also been busy in a different way. We’ve been on a mission: to learn how the living Earth’s organs—the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land—work together to keep our planet’s temperature just right for living things to grow and thrive. We started early in the summer by taking a flight into space so we could view the whole planet and its atmosphere from a long distance. Then we each gave ourselves an assignment. Julie took the oceans, calling herself Water Woman. The atmosphere was Tom’s choice, and Gas Guy was his handle. I studied Earth’s crust—the land.

We’ve been on a mission to learn how the Earth’s climate works.

Each of us gathered information from nature and from the Internet, then we took turns describing our discoveries to the others. Now and then Tom and Julie’s cousins joined us to share in the summer fun and help out on the mission. We learned about how the atmosphere works like a blanket to keep us warm. About how ocean currents keep our temperature just right by carrying warm water toward the poles and cold water toward the equator. And about how the land grows plants, which breathe out the oxygen we humans need to breathe. The more we learned, the more amazed we were by the intricate workings of the planet’s three organs and how they work together to support all living things.

We discovered some scary things, too. We learned that when people cut down forests and burn coal and oil, our atmosphere gets thicker and the Earth heats up. This really worried Tom and Julie. They’d heard about what might happen if our climate gets much warmer. The ice at the North and South Poles will melt, the oceans will rise and get warmer, there will be more forest fires, and it will be harder to grow food.

Global Warming Cape Cod
How Water Travels from Oceans to Land and Back
The water cycle shows how the oceans, atmosphere, and land work together to support all living things.

Just yesterday morning, we took our last walk of the summer on Nauset Beach. The beach is always a good place for talking things over. After an early swim in the ocean, we sat on the sand and soaked up the sunshine.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do about this global warming,” Julie said after a few minutes. “I’m scared the ocean is going to rise so high that Boston will be flooded and parts of the Cape will wash away!” She hugged her knees and wiped a tear off her cheek. “And when the water gets too warm, it’ll be much harder for sea plants and animals to live there.”

Global Warming Cape Cod
Nauset Beach
This is the big ocean beach near where Tom and Julie spent the summer.

She and I both looked over at Tom, who was building a little fort with rocks and stones he had collected along the water’s edge.

“Too much carbon!” Tom grunted, pushing sand up around his fort. “Just about all the scientists agree that the Earth is going to keep warming up for the next fifty years, maybe more. We gotta stop burning fossil fuels.”

“Agreed,” I answered, giving Julie a smile and a towel to wipe her face. “Can you think of ways to make electricity without burning coal and oil?” I asked her.

Julie sniffled. Then she squinted up at the sun. “People are putting solar panels on the roofs of their houses, like your neighbors down the lane,” she said tentatively. “So that must be one way to make electricity from the sun.”

Tom pointed toward my house, where a wind machine with a three-bladed propeller was spinning in the southwest wind. “The wind is another power source,” he reminded us. “I remember you said your windmill produces all the electricity you use every month.”

“That’s true.”

Julie began to look more cheerful. “So the sun and the wind can help us,” she announced, jumping up and striking a dancer’s pose. “What about the oceans?” she asked, shading her eyes and looking out over the water.

“Well, we dam up rivers and use that water to make electricity,” I pointed out. “I think some countries are even using the ocean tides to make power.”

By now Julie’s tears were gone, replaced by her usual bright smile. “Wow, I’d love to find out more about that.” She jumped up.

Global Warming Cape Cod
Gramps’s wind machine is in the woods near his house.

“Well, I’d better study something too,” I said. “I’ve already had to learn a lot of stuff about wind power to understand how my machine works. I’ll find out more about how a wind generator produces electricity.”

“Yay! Water, wind, and sun, they make me want to run!” Julie shouted, spraying sand on Tom as she sprinted past him down the beach again. Tom looked over at me with an exaggerated sigh. He loves his sister but sometimes he thinks she’s a bit much.

“Sun, wind and water, I am Gaia’s daughter!” Julie chanted.

I STEP OUT ONTO THE SIDE DECK. There are Julie’s rocks, scattered among other beach treasures we’ve collected over the past weeks—scallop, conch, and quahog shells; horseshoe crab shells in various sizes; and even a big old spider crab.

I stand still for a minute, listening to the wind, watching a seagull soar on the updraft created by the steep bluff between me and the beach. For seventy years I have lived here on Pleasant Bay, my daily routine determined by the wind, the tides, and the shifting sands. My children grew up loving this place, and now my grandchildren have also been shaped by its rhythms.

Having Tom and Julie here all summer has made this one of the happiest times in my long life. But I feel sad that they’re so worried about the future of the planet we all live on. I didn’t need to think about those things when I was their age. And they have good reason to be worried. Planet Earth is in serious trouble, and all of us are responsible.

Tom is right that we’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels and cutting down so many trees. I’m encouraged by his response: wanting to learn about alternative ways to produce electricity. I’m really hoping their teachers will support their plan to do research on sun, water, and wind power.

They’ve already learned a lot this summer—they know that Mother Earth, her oceans, and our own star (the sun) produce energy that could be used to light our streets, heat our homes, and run our cars, trains, and buses. We just need technologies to capture that energy and send it to the right places in the right ways.

Planet Earth is in serious trouble, and all of us are responsible.

Scientists and inventors have already made a lot of progress on clean energy solutions. But it will be up to Tom and Julie and other people their age to get the rest of us on board. That will be a big challenge, but I know how determined they are. And I’m eager to learn more about clean energy along with them. I already have a wind machine; maybe there are other ways I could reduce my dependence on fossil fuels.

On my way back indoors, I stop in the hall and pick up a canvas bag for Julie’s rocks.

“Come on, you guys! Time to roll!”

Continue to Chapter 1: Energy From the Sun