Energy policy for an uncertain age
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Tales of ultimate disaster caused by global warming fill today’s media, alongside accounts of impressive new technologies for clean, green, carbon-free, earth-saving energy. New energy corporations are drawing investment capital in steady streams, hoping for a portion of the financial bonanza to come from new energy ideas: better cars, more efficient boilers, vegetation that converts to oil, cleaner power plants; windmills sweeping across prairies, hilltops and seacoasts; and solar cells arrayed from horizon to horizon, powering entire communities. Most reporters tend to cover technology news by relying on the public relations machinery of government and corporate research laboratories. Still, their reporting on such trends has made energy a much discussed public issue. But is the public receiving an accurate picture of what we are facing as our oil and gas resources run out and the glaciers and ice caps melt? Or is something critical missing? Is a meaningful discourse actually taking place?

Clearly, there will not be enough oil to meet demand in coming years. Coupled with reports about atmospheric warming, that news ought by now to have incited a level of public outrage that so little is being done to create a future where the world’s countries collaborate on energy policy, making something positive out of what are now insufficiently connected approaches by individual states or small groups.

Yet the overall picture being presented to the public goes something like this: We’ll just proceed here and there with portions of this technology, portions of that, and somehow, in time, with everyone working in his or her niche, the future will solve itself through an automatically arranged pattern. Keep at it with capital market and government funding, and eventually a new age of energy will slip into history at just the right time. The picture assumes a future of carbon-free energy for the whole world, an inevitable slowdown in the rate of global warming and the mitigation of any permanent damage from use of fossil fuels. It also assumes that life will proceed largely unchanged, and that a system of global capitalism dependent on continuous, lavish spending will be confirmed. Poorer countries, as usual, will be left out.

Rising global temperatures, however, seem certain to produce destabilizing weather patterns, disruptions in agriculture and bizarre disease patterns. Some economies anticipate boom times from warming—such as those of northern nations, which foresee lucrative oil and mineral sources under a warmed and navigable Arctic ocean. On the whole, though, global warming will lead to massive disruptions across the planet, from more violent storm systems to diseases previously unknown in temperate regions to chaos in foreign affairs. No one will be unaffected. This underlines the need for a new sense of community among countries caught in the web of effects from warming.

However dire the global consequences of warming, that is only half the picture. What about the simple matter of producing energy for the relentless economic demand? The geopolitical issues connected with immense competition for oil in the future will be as threatening as the environmental issues related to global warming. Both threats make energy policy a huge and pressing issue for the United States, and we must begin planning and acting on our energy future immediately.

The “green” momentum visible everywhere, from neighborhoods to boardrooms, is exciting, genuinely encouraging, politically needed and technologically necessary. It is serious and should not be ridiculed. But neither should “going green” be perceived as a policy that will correct today’s critically dangerous course, one of slowness and disorganization. Something much more is needed: a big, thoughtful and vigorous examination of all the existing and impending resources and technologies, how they relate to one another and how near to an interconnected independence we and other countries can come.

Current and Future Energy Sources

No perspective on energy policy is possible without data on the use of and the prospects for each major energy source. The following energy assessments are based on many sources representing various energy interests.

Petroleum. The world has an assured supply of petroleum for 80 to 100 years. The United States presently accounts for 40 percent of petroleum consumption, mainly for transportation and source material for a huge variety of chemicals. Competing and increasing demands from China and India because of their own needs could drain much of that away. In the past, oil consumed was replaced by new exploratory finds. Since reserves can no longer be so easily retrieved, the United States cannot continue its profligate use of oil. Added sources of petroleum are tar sands and oil shale, but their conversion to petroleum is an energy-draining process that emits carbon dioxide, the notorious greenhouse gas. Our citizens must know that the oil supply could be exhausted in less than a century. We must move smartly to conserve what we have left and develop new and petroleum-free alternative systems and transportation modes for the future.

Natural gas. Global supplies are reckoned to be enough for about 70 to 90 years. The United States currently consumes 23 percent of the world’s supply, mainly for heating, electric utility power generation and production of industrial chemicals. The rationale for petroleum also holds for natural gas. This fuel is precious and should be reserved for only the most needed uses.

Coal. Our reserves are enormous: the United States has a 250-year supply of high-quality, low-sulfur coal. Today the United States uses 23 percent of the coal consumed worldwide, and coal-fired plants provide close to 50 percent of our electric power needs. But at what cost? Coal is dirty. It is an enormous challenge to figure out how to treat and burn coal so that it does not add to greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide. So far, research efforts have failed to produce low-cost technologies to convert carbon dioxide to harmless carbon products and water. The alternative is to store carbon dioxide underground in storage containers now used for oil and natural gas. However, many experts doubt such a plan will work because of the potential for leaks back into the atmosphere. Few believe that these and other approaches toward reducing the impact of coal combustion can save the planet from warming. But without coal, big changes in energy-generation technology will have to be made.

Nuclear energy. This is essentially in inexhaustible supply. Currently, 110 nuclear power plants meet 8 percent of the U.S. electrical power demand. Increased use is anticipated, and the percentage could rise as fossil fuel use declines. The major issues, however, are safe, permanent disposal of spent fuel and the reprocessing and safe recovery of fissionable materials. Some experts believe that such problems are near solution. Nuclear energy stirs up intense emotions, both for and against, so the issues need to be addressed and resolved in a thoughtful, considered way. Abroad, nuclear power provides 79 percent of France’s electricity, 28 percent of Germany’s, 28 percent of Japan’s and 20 percent of the United Kingdom’s. France and Japan in particular are committed to a nuclear future. Given the provisions of the 2005 Energy Act, nuclear energy is experiencing a modest revival in the United States; almost 30 new plants or additions to existing ones are being considered for construction here. The Department of Energy is also sponsoring research into new reactor systems.

Renewables. These offer an endless supply, and are therefore the great hope of sustainable energy advocates. Renewable sources of energy include photovoltaics or solar cells for generating electricity, heat-based energy systems for large central power plants, systems for heating houses, wind-powered electric generation, geothermal steam, biomass (high-caloric plants of many kinds, like mill grass, corn, switch grass and sugar cane), hydroelectric dams and wave action. Renewables currently supply 8 percent of U.S. energy needs. That must rise considerably to at least 25 percent to 35 percent of the entire energy mix. The major problem with most renewables is that they are not available at all times to meet demand. Since the sun is not always out and the wind does not always blow, research must continue on devising batteries to store the energy generated by these systems for use at any time.

High-tech energy. Hydrogen-generated power and fuel cells are intriguing possibilities, but years will pass before mass production and other efficiencies are developed that would bring down costs. The experts, however, assure supporters that the promise of high-tech energy is enormous. Nuclear fusion is another long-researched area, in which a major breakthrough could be a panacea for all the world’s energy problems.

What Is at Stake

How should such assessments be regarded or interpreted? Not rigidly, for they are mainly benchmarks, and different estimates emerge daily. The most important figures are the estimates of when oil will start to run out, because the price of oil determines the cost of everything else. This gives us less than a century to develop an enduring energy infrastructure. Time is not on our side.

Energy shortages and environmental disasters will be defining characteristics of the future unless the world, led by the United States, establishes an extensive but flexible plan for energy. No matter what is done or not done, stunning lifestyle changes are in the offing, and they could begin by 2020. (Eskimos and other groups living within the Arctic Circle are already experiencing them.) If not enough is accomplished, economies and urban systems could approach collapse. If something wise, intelligent and generous takes place, however, the planet could experience a new era of human creativity.

Without cutting down on oil and natural gas use at some point within the next 75 years, the competition for those fuels will reach ferocious proportions, with the United States likely exerting less control over their supply. The American Petroleum Institute dismisses the idea of serious shortages any time soon, but petroleum use is already outpacing the rate of new discoveries. Because of America’s own gluttonous habits, other nations will be likely to cause us serious trouble as competition intensifies. Preparation for that time should not center on virtually claiming oil-rich foreign lands as our own in the name of democracy, but on developing and exploiting new, independent sources of energy. Such new sources could fill both our needs and those of other countries.

Further, it is morally imperative that we ask serious questions that the public can understand and that make demands on our politicians. Our national political discussion must include serious talk about changing the mix of our energy needs, reducing them by conservation and more efficient technologies, producing emissions free of carbon dioxide as an urgent national priority and producing both a plan and a program so that equitable amounts of energy are generated to meet the human needs of all countries.

A consensus among energy experts today is that national energy independence is an unattainable goal and, in any case, a foolish idea, because the world is too economically interconnected through trade in resources. No country can operate without various economic and strategic relations with another, but countries can cut down on excessive dependence on foreign-owned resources through creative, independent approaches that are appropriate to their energy needs.

Bold but Necessary Actions

Work must begin now on a crash basis to fulfill humankind’s obligation to the future through stewardship of the planet. The question is how. This country, in cooperation with other nations that have a similar sense of urgency, needs to mount something on the scale and intensity of an Apollo or Manhattan Project. Such a venture would be worthy of a great society. The United States, with its immense technological skills and resources, must set the tone and determine the pace.

The kind of wide-ranging debate occurring today, while only partial, is important. But people—the right people—have to meet and begin hammering out a serious plan. Judging by its record, the Bush administration is hardly the base from which to start; and the current Congress, despite the energy bill it recently passed with an emphasis on renewable sources, is still divided as to the intensity required for a new policy. Nevertheless, we need a forum to develop a plan. Initial steps could be taken by a foundation or other public group to help further define the problems and issues. This could then serve as a blueprint for an aggressive program of action by a new administration.

One hopes that the next president will be aware of these serious problems and will recruit experts to brief him or her frequently on critical issues and the pace of progress. The White House’s science advisers during the critical days of the cold war frequently served that function and were an essential adjunct to the presidency. Our next president must rouse the citizenry about these critical issues threatening our children and then take action. It will not be easy, but it will be necessary.

Richard J. Green was a senior research and development manager for NASA in the Apollo program and the National Science Foundation in developing and executing the nations first renewable energy program. Wil Lepkowski is a journalist who has c

Comments

richard kuebbing | 3/29/2008 - 11:13pm
As a scientist and a former worker in the "oil patch" who worked a few decades ago on building a database for the government to use in predicting the amount and nature of US oil reserves, I am disappointed in your article "Energy policy for an uncertain age". The statement "The world has an assured supply of petroleum for 80 to 100 years." is misleading. The statement "This gives us less than a century to develop an enduring energy infrastructure." is radically misleading. "The most important figures are the estimates of when oil will start to run out, because the price of oil determines the cost of everything else." is right on. But the answer to it is today plus/minus a decade. Oil Wells produce in a manner where their output declines over time. (Yes this is a gross oversimplification but true for this argument.) So the wells we have today will not be adequate next week even if demand remains constant. But as the article says "Competing and increasing demands from China and India because of their own needs could drain much of that [the oil flow the US is using] away." India has even started to produce automobiles that should take their demand up quite significantly. Oil production has always gone up and down in dramatic fashion over the years since its "discovery" in Pennsylvania. The difference now is that there are no significant number of places where "supergiant" fields can be hiding that can make up for the decline of current production. The current runup in prices is not temporary. It is a simple reflection of decline plus the increase in demand from less developed economies. In terms of impact to our economy, "Time is not on our side." is understated.
lLetha Chamberlain | 3/28/2008 - 4:23am
Thank you for this article--there needs to be more like it in many well-placed journals. All the emotionalism around nuclear energy is, as you say, largely ignorant fear at this point--the problems have been worked out. We have available to us all we need, so it is mainly an issue of education. There are reasons this education is not being done--and I fear the reasons may be other than simply oversight. We shall see, however, by the rate in which this message gets heard, and how quickly the energy "problems" are solved since the answer is right in front of our very eyes.
lLetha Chamberlain | 3/28/2008 - 4:23am
Thank you for this article--there needs to be more like it in many well-placed journals. All the emotionalism around nuclear energy is, as you say, largely ignorant fear at this point--the problems have been worked out. We have available to us all we need, so it is mainly an issue of education. There are reasons this education is not being done--and I fear the reasons may be other than simply oversight. We shall see, however, by the rate in which this message gets heard, and how quickly the energy "problems" are solved since the answer is right in front of our very eyes.