Review: UNH’s own Tom Haines gets at the heart of American energy


If you have ever wondered where our fuel comes from, whether renewable or nonrenewable, look no further than “Walking to the Sun: A Journey Through America’s Energy Landscapes” by University of New Hampshire (UNH) College of Liberal Arts Professor Tom Haines.
An instructor in the undergraduate journalism program, Haines focuses on multimedia, investigative and climate change reporting, drawing on his extensive experience with such publications as The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The New York Times. Haines’ new book is an account of his journey through the United States as he seeks to understand how we get our energy, how detrimental it is to the environment and what it all means.
The first half of the book recounts walking through the production landscapes of non-renewable resources – oil, gas and coal – while the second half of the book deals with renewable sources of power – sun, water and wind. Haines visits all six landscapes by foot, with walks ranging from ten miles in the desert of Nevada to 69 miles in the grasslands of New York and Pennsylvania.
“I had chosen to walk because I wanted to measure the exhaustion of my effort and encounter the oil harvest not as a product of the system it supported but as an animal exposed, part of nature again,” he explained while pointing out the pros and cons of the different types of energy, including the “clean” options.
One of the things that shocked me was that the solar panels Haines saw in Nevada can become so hot that they can cause birds to explode if they fly too close. This brings up several questions, including whether solar power should take priority over the birds or if we need to be doing more to work around them. Haines ponders these conundrums at every landscape he visits, constantly asking himself what we as a society actually need, how his own consumerism contributes to this system and what we should do when it seems like no matter what our options are, someone or something will end up hurt.
Haines backs up his observations with studies on the environment and energy resources as well as the accounts of the workers on these landscapes. He speaks to countless people throughout his journey who are directly affected by energy decisions, such as farmers, miners truck drivers, boat captains, historians and homeowners.
While Haines was in Maine looking at hydraulic power, he learned about the history of Native Americans in the area. In North Dakota he met oil workers who weren’t happy with their jobs but said anyways that “it needed to be done.” There was one farmer who he spoke to who had wind turbines on his farm that helped keep operations running. “The wind, in other words, functioned as another crop, bringing diversity to the operation,” wrote Haines.
Haines’ journey is an inspiration, and his vivid prose pulls the reader with him from the wind farms to the coal mines. Not only does Haines examine the six types of energies, he also writes in great detail what it was like walking those different terrains and sleeping on farms or campgrounds in unfamiliar places.
My one complaint is that I would have preferred it to be broken up more, especially in the first chapters, as I felt like they were dense. That ended up not mattering, however, because I couldn’t put the book down!
I would recommend this book to everyone who is even remotely interested in America’s energy sources, climate change or the environment.