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writing for godot

Future Energy Must Be Assured

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Written by William F. Pickard   
Wednesday, 30 January 2013 01:16

It’s hard being President, even in the best of times and with the canniest of advisors. And it’s even harder when the economy is squishy!

But in June 2011, when Bill Clinton claimed in Newsweek that “It’s Still the Economy, Stupid”, Obama was getting dubious advice. If you’ve got a fever, your doctor may prescribe a febrifuge to palliate the symptom, but you sort of hope that he also treats the root cause. James Carville probably should be excused for coining the original saying back in 1992: something was clearly wrong in the country, and he was right to ask “What?”. Later Timothy Wirth, then of the State Department and now of the United Nations Foundation, took us to a deeper level when he observed in 1997 that “the Economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Environment”. But is even that the whole story? A cornerstone of the once-vaunted Toyota production system used to be (and probably still is) the Five Whys: when seeking the root cause of a problem one should delve ever deeper, repeatedly asking “Why?” at each successive level of explanation, until no deeper levels can be found. So now, instead of continuing to obsess about the Economy, perhaps we should ask “Why?” a third time and hazard that “The Environment’s string is being jerked by Energy.”

Indeed it is! During our quest for cheap energy, most of the carbon in the fossil fuel we consumed ended up as CO2 in the atmosphere, where it lingers still and interminably, while its environmental cost to society (whatever that may be) becomes a hidden subsidy for the energy. The catalytic converter on your car costs about a thousand dollars to replace, an expense which you must bear as another hidden subsidy for energy. And then there are the petroleum imports: each year, America net-imports about 3.25 billion barrels of petroleum, for which it bleeds abroad some 300 billion dollars. Where might our economy be if those billions were greasing our economic wheels rather than someone else’s? And what might happen to our economy if the price of oil doubles?

Jimmy Carter had a vision for energy independence which just might have spared us these woes. But no one paid much attention. Ronald Reagan replaced it with a rather more laissez faire alternative that presaged our presently antiquated electricity grid. Worse still (as John Holdren and his collaborators have shown) constant-dollar DOE expenditures for energy R&D have fallen by roughly a factor of three over the past thirty years. Our record of pro-active preparation and prudent contingency planning for energy is rather more abominable than our profligate increase of national debt.

The National Academies found electrification to be first among the twenty most significant technological advances of the Twentieth Century. It made a world of difference to rural America. It is making a world of difference in sub-Saharan Africa. And without it, most of the other nineteen big technological advances would have been stuck somewhere between Difficult and Impossible. Electricity is a wonderful form of energy, even though generating it requires other energy; and today, for slightly over forty percent of the World’s electricity, that other energy comes from burning coal. Coal is a finite fossil resource, is not renewable on human time spans, and is running out. And so for that matter are petroleum and natural gas: the latest estimate from Prof. David Rutledge of Caltech is that 90% of the World’s fossil carbon will be gone in sixty years. Doing nothing efficacious while all this happens is of course an option, viable for those who are middle aged or elderly, but a disaster-in-waiting for their grandchildren.

Since Obama was first elected, at least five major independent studies have sounded an alarm that steam coal will be largely exhausted within a century whilst peak coal will occur much sooner. Meanwhile, everyone’s prediction seems to be that World electricity demand will rise steadily in the decades ahead. And recent estimates predict that the biggest energy source for China, India, and many developing economies will continue to be coal. Mankind has now insouciantly drifted to a point in time near that where falling energy supplies are likely to intersect with rising energy demands and touch off an economy-dislocating price spiral. Because the World Economy now depends in an essential way upon electricity supplies, Energy jerks it around directly – not just indirectly through the Environment. The root problem underlying the Economy’s woes is the Energy.

Confronting America’s energy problems is not at all like confronting America’s nuclear waste problems. Sure, you’re free to kick both of these cans down the road and hope that nothing bad happens. If you do, the most likely outcome for the middle-aged and the elderly is that they go scot free and their grandchildren are left with the coping. Coping with the nuclear waste in 2075 could be as simple a patching up its “temporary” storage and kicking the can still farther down the road for the great-great grandchildren to deal with: inconsiderate, maybe even immoral, but eminently doable. Whereas coping with a spavined energy supply would most likely require many decades of capital expenditure to the tune of several percent of a healthy gross planetary product for, even though our can-kicking will have left our grandchildren with major energy shortages, an unhealthy gross planetary product, and the sickening realization that they should have started sooner. Much sooner!

Because it will take many decades to construct a robust sustainable-energy infrastructure, the World’s youth would be well advised to get started now while cheap fossil energy is still available. Meanwhile, their elders, who would fecklessly chant the “renewables are too expensive” mantra, would do well to remember that West Germanic peasants presciently defined land area not by length but by labor: before an acre was 4840 square yards, it was the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plough in a day – that is to say, two oxpower-days and clearly a unit of energy. If we choose not to develop plentiful renewable resources like solar and wind, then willy-nilly we must regress to the good old days when fuel was dried biomass and the prime mover behind most machines was vertebrate muscle.

In reality, it’s not the Economy. It’s not the Environment. It’s the Energy. America’s future (and the World’s) hangs upon our recognizing this – and actually responding proactively.



William F. Pickard is on the faculty of Washington University in Saint Louis. His principal focus is sustainable energy.

 

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0 # EPGAH3 2013-01-31 13:46
What WILL it do to our economy? Might be better to ask what HAS it done to our economy! When Obama took office, gas prices took off, from $1.50 to $3.50.
This near-tripling had a garrotte effect on the economy, plain and simple. For some people, going to work actually COST more money than they EARNED! And for those that didn't, food prices went up--WAY up! And it was as if someone pushed the choke button on America's economic engine! People couldn't afford extras and economy slowed, or people bought extras, couldn't afford the basics and went on Welfare.

America's (and everyone else's) dependence on oil is not about CHEAP (see above), but because so far, petrochemicals are the only way to get energy WHERE you want it WHEN you want it and the AMOUNT you want it.
Batteries, even the Godlike Lithium and Titanium Ion, still have memory effect, and still have to be ridiculously HUGE to store enough to move, say, a car, much less with people IN it!
Solar cannot provide enough energy. It's simple high-school physics (Before that was removed because people couldn't handle it) A Chinese company backed by American and German money is building a MASSIVE solar array in Africa, which will provide about 90-some MW. That's less than a nuclear reactor could, and the reactor wouldn't take anywhere NEAR that much space. If we were going to waste money building a solar array in the desert, I hear there's one in Arizona that can be secured from violent Third Worlders MUCH more easily!
 

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