Sunday, March 4, 2012

Energy Policy Ignores the Elephant in the Room: Saving Us from Global Warming and Peak Oil

In current thinking, the issues presented by global warming concern using less fossil fuel and replacing that energy source with alternative”clean” energy.  We are all familiar with the options that are on the table: solar power, wind power, ethanol, and nuclear power. Oh and I suppose for accuracy one should add clean coal. There is also modest incremental talk of conservation.

However, there are problems with all of these “solutions.”  Clean coal, which requires the deep burial of carbon dioxide, will never be politically or economically viable.  For one, the energy companies want to be left off the hook legally if the gas should happen to escape its underground habitat and kill people.  Then there’s the problem of removing mountaintops and the resulting environmental degradation to access the coal.

Nuclear power, at least nuclear fission, has the inescapable and unsolvable problem of what to do with the nuclear waste product that will remain radioactive for thousands of years.  Nuclear fusion, which would be safer and produce less radioactive waste is still experimental; a test reactor is under construction in France.

The remaining “green” options are generally agreed not to have the capacity to provide anywhere close to our massive energy needs.  And even the green options, including electric cars, would need massive amounts of energy … generated by fossil fuels, of course … to be financially viable. Corn ethanol, which has only thrown world corn markets into a frenzy resulting in increased food costs for the poor, has been proven to be worthless as an energy saver.

If one is objective, one therefore has to say that all the talk about substantially reducing our carbon footprint through the use of alternative energy sources just is not very realistic, given our current  and future dependence on energy, which will just get worse as the world population grows and more of it experiences modern development.

And as one thinks about this issue, it is important to remember that there is another energy-related catastrophic event waiting to happen out there … it’s not just global warming. At some point in the future … whether it’s starting to happen already as some argue or will happen in 20 or 50 or 100 years … we will reach “peak oil.” The availability of oil then will be drastically reduced and the price of what oil is available will skyrocket to unimaginable heights.

So if one is trying to plan for the future, the inescapable question that must be addressed is how can modern man live, with a reasonable level of creature comfort (one must be practical), using only a fraction of the energy that is being used today. Only if that question can be realistically answered is there any hope for mankind’s future. If that question is not answered, sooner rather than later our economies will collapse, our standard of living will evaporate … the world will become a very ugly place, not all that different from the futuristic world depicted in “Mad Max.”  We will have destroyed ourselves, not by nuclear weapons, but through our insatiable greed.

I certainly do not have the answer.  What’s scary though, is that I am not aware of any great minds or think tanks that have addressed this issue and come up with various models for how we could live using only a fraction of the energy being used today. No one seems to be thinking or talking about this. This goes way beyond what could be achieved through conservation, energy-efficient appliances, green buildings, and the like. This would most likely require a massive change in the way we currently live.

To my mind, government and industry must join forces in a project even larger than the fabled Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. The future of our children, and certainly our children’s children, will depend on whether and how this issue is addressed.