Responsibly addressing our energy and climate issues presents a serious challenge not only because of the complex and huge economic, technological and scientific aspects involved but also because of the enormous volume of sensationalized, simplistic and often plain wrong information interjected into the discussion. If we are to develop responsible policies then they must be anchored in hard facts — not hype.
However rhetorically appealing to politicians, pundits and those promoting an agenda, the fact is that there is no magic energy bullet and that certainly applies to wind, solar and ethanol. There are no simple cures to a challenge that has been in the making over decades. If there were, we would already be adopting them.
As regards our energy supply there is, however, much we can do — many parts to the solution of meeting our energy needs. Whatever the exact mix, diversity of energy resources is key. Having a broad energy portfolio contributes to energy security by reducing dependence upon any single source and it insures competition that promotes technological advances. And, in any case, it is really the only viable option. But having an effective diverse supply requires recognizing that our energy infrastructure is complex. A complex energy supply and infrastructure will be most effective and dependable and technologically advanced when responding to market forces not Federal mandates that are likely to hurt both reliability and affordability.
To chart an intelligent energy course requires recognizing the potentials and limitations of different energy sources. For example, solar and wind energy, while growing parts of our energy portfolio, only contribute a fraction of a percent to meeting our total energy demand. Without some radical and unforeseen technological change, the fact is that their inherent limitations mean these and other renewable resources are unlikely to reliably provide for more than a relatively small faction of our energy needs for decades to come.
And like wind and solar, while conservation of energy sources has an environmental imprimatur and should be pursued, it is not a magic energy bullet. Real conservation gains are demonstrated by the fact that overtime less energy is used for every dollar of GNP generated.1 These gains are the result of efficiencies that make sense. Everyone is for conserving energy whether concerned about the environmental ramifications or not. Companies that run coal fired plants don’t burn extra coal just to increase their costs and decrease their profit margin. Just about every drop of crude that can be converted into a useful product is. If one oil, coal, natural gas or other kind of energy producer or supplier can get a competitive advantage in the market by producing more bang for the buck they do it or lose out to someone else who does. In fact, energy companies pay money to scads of engineers to do just that. And, when the average individual makes intelligent conservation choices it is money in their pocket.
The reality, however, is that economically viable gains from conservation of our current energy supply alone will not meet the increasing demand necessary for a growing economy and it is entirely unrealistic to think that, for example, solar and wind could reliably and economically make up the difference within several decades. While low-watt light bulbs, replacement windows and small cars make contributions to addressing energy demand, they hardly constitute a strategy for prosperity or for improving the well-being of the average American by ensuring a reliable and adequate energy supply.
The question is not whether we should conserve energy but rather conserve energy derived from what? Oil and natural gas require drilling unless we wish to import even more. Coal requires mining and coal fired power plants. Nuclear requires more nuclear plants and disposal of nuclear waste and there is little suppott for expansion for hydropower . Whatever we might lose from each of these sources just adds to unmet demand. And, all of these things including wind, solar and other renewable energy sources require infrastructure. Just which of these energy sources do the environmental concerns pushing for immediate CO2 regulatory policies actually support?
For now, without these energy sources — barring some transformational technology advance we would all love to see — there are no realistic alternatives to meet our near term energy supply needs next year or five, ten or even 20 years from now. Calling for ‘more renewables like wind and solar and more conservation’ alone is to push for cutting the energy supply essential to economic growth without admitting it.
The reality is that fossil fuels provide 86% of our energy supply now and the Department of Energy anticipates fossil fuels will provide a similar portion of our energy supply for decades into the future. The fact is, if we wish to ensure the adequate and reliable energy supply necessary for our economy and security, we need to ensure adequate supplies of fossil fuels for decades to come.
Another fact that must be recognized is that the development of our energy infrastructure and energy resources — coal , natural gas , oil , nuclear , hydroelectric and even wind — has been severely limited by environmental concerns. In some instances compelling cases can be made that the limitations were justified but the totality of the effect has been to seriously hinder our energy security, even to increase the political influence of hostile nations that are energy suppliers. Restricting energy supplies has been a consistent pattern of environmental concerns. According to the Wall Street Journal a recent legislative effort supported by many environmental concerns:
“… fulfills one big ambition of environmental groups in recent years: a rollback of any smarter use of public (or even private) lands for energy use. Gone are previous gains for more drilling, more refineries, more transmission lines. But the big prize was an unprecedented new power allowing green groups to micromanage U.S. lands. That section creates ‘a new national policy on wildlife and global warming.’”2
A large number of environmental concerns voiced their strong support for this legislation — with one acknowledging that it “worked with committee and congressional staff as they developed” the bill.3
Despite conventional wisdom, the reality is that there are huge energy resources that we have not yet tapped. Some would require technological advances but the hurdles are often far less then those faced by other potential energy sources that are discussed as possible solutions. Other sources that do not present similar technological challenges could be tapped if we just had the will. The amount of energy that these resources could provide would not make the United States energy independent but could certainly be equivalent to a substantial portion of the energy we import from hostile and unstable regions of the world. Tapping these resources could significantly improve America’s energy security.
What is clear is that as we search for long-term solutions, failure to provide for our energy needs in coming decades, not just the distant future, could have seriously adverse consequences. Making provisions for sufficient energy is crucial — crucial to our economy and security and crucial to addressing any environmental challenges we may face including climate.
Now, many are arguing that we must urgently implement CO2 polices — policies that would increase the costs of an energy supply that has already been consistently constrained on the basis of environmental concerns. Just how such emissions reductions would actually be accomplished without wrenching transformations of our society and economy are not well explained.
Using the wedge approach to explore some of the ‘possible’ courses reveals that it would be, to put it mildly, hard to do. If we converted the world’s automobile fleet to ethanol and a portion of the world’s arable cropland equal to about 25% of the US to energy crops, we would have one wedge — not to mention some significant problems with the world’s food supply. Covering an area equivalent to Arizona with wind turbines and an area a bit less than the nation of Israel with photovoltaic panels would provide two more. Adding plantations on currently unforested land that total an area greater than India and Pakistan combined and reforesting enough tropical lands to cover an greater than France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the UK combined would provide a fourth wedge. With a doubling of nuclear power we would have a fifth; doubling the energy efficiency of a huge number of coal plants would provide a sixth.
According to the wedge analytical tool, these actions and one additional wedge of some sort would provide the needed CO2 offsets for a carbon emissions growth rate of 1.3% — a rate of growth that reflects the energy-starved and consequently, economically destitute and squalid environmental conditions for billions of people. If growth in emissions increased to 3% as a result of increased energy consumption generating greater prosperity and all the contributions the accumulation of wealth brings to human well-being beginning with longer lives — then we would need to find an additional 11 wedges.
Such unrealistic strategies are consistent with the thinking that people in an increasingly prosperous and technologically advanced society present an environmental threat. This belief is evident in the IPCC emission scenario that happens to result in the least predicated increase in temperature and sea level ranges. That scenario is based upon a ‘storyline’ for the world in which there is:
“…rapid change in economic structures toward a service and information economy, with reductions in material intensity and the introduction of clean and resource efficient technologies. The emphasis is on global solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability, including improved equity, but without additional climate initiatives.”4
The average individual worried about climate change may not be sufficiently informed to understand what little consequence some of policies being promoted would have upon climate or the huge costs such proposal could impose on our economy, environment and energy security. The same, however, cannot be said of many among the leadership of those highly organized and well-funded and informed environmental concerns that have promoted the constriction of energy supplies and the adoption of ineffective climate policies.
Despite the belief of some that economic growth is essentially bad for the environment and, consequently, that constricting energy supplies is good, the reality is that without economic growth technological advances and adoption of new technologies suffers. And, as more and more people realize, technology holds the keys to many of the challenges we face including environmental challenges.
If, for example, we were to develop hydrogen as a means of fueling vehicles we would have to build an entire new infrastructure to support it. Building a hydrogen generation and distribution system would be a hugely expensive undertaking. But not only would we have to build a new infrastructure but also replace the huge vehicle fleet of the United States, some 191 million cars, with hydrogen vehicles.5
In robust economies more people could afford to purchase hydrogen vehicles than in an economy suffering from the effects of a reduced energy supply. The same can be said of increasing the number of vehicles with improved fuel efficiency, hybrids or vehicles that use other alternative fuels. Similarly, the potential to construct new power plants with reduced emissions or new nuclear plants, expanding the grid to accommodate more wind development or improving older facilities to reduce emissions would be far less in weaker economies.
The development and adoption of new technologies, some we can imagine — like fusion or artificial photosynthesis — or others still unknown, suffers when the economy suffers. If we wish to develop and enlist technology to meet our challenges, then we have to have the financial ability to make it happen. Increasing the cost of energy—an essential component of wealth creation — reduces wealth.
Wealth generated by a strong economy not only advances technology but also is strongly and positively tied with numerous measurements of human well-being including the single most important environmental measurement — human health. And, despite the many sensational claims made and much conventional wisdom, strong economic growth in the United States has been accompanied by dramatic improvements in a wide range of environmental measurements like air and water quality and average life span. Certainly there are negative environmental impacts in prosperous societies but wealth makes expenditures that benefit the environment possible, expenditures that, to poorer societies are luxuries beyond reach —including having the financial ability to address and adapt to any future environmental challenges that could result from changes in climate.
Nevermind possible threats a century away, poorer societies cannot afford to address immediate and well-understood environmental problems for which the solutions are known — like the death of nearly two million people, mostly children, each and every year. Certainly, in any honest assessment of immediacy and gravity of threat posed by the world’s environmental problems, the lack of clean drinking water trumps possible climatic changes from manmade CO2 decades or a century from now.
The path ahead is forked. Choosing the responsible path to meet our energy and climate challenges requires making decisions based on solid facts. There must be an honest discussion and accurate understanding of these issues including many that have been absent in the current public discourse. Of the forks we could choose, one is a perilous course where the past push for constricting energy and the actions that have done so merge with rashly enacted CO2 policies and rumble along on a downhill trajectory. Rejecting this course and choosing the responsible path will still require meeting significant challenges but none are insurmountable. Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is tuning out the hype and mustering the will to take the right path.
1. Quoted in press release, “U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Fossil Fuels Declined by 1.3 Percent in 2006,” EIA, May 23, 2007, http://www.eia.doe.gov/neic/press/press284.html and see http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/25opec/sld022.htm.
2. Strassel, Kim, “Green Goodies,” The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2007.
4. IPPC, Working Group III, Box SPM. 1, p. 9.