Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's Not a Matter of Either/Or

One of my biggest discomforts is that most energy professionals are experts on one energy source or on one aspect of the energy problem. We can all too easily get into a mode that is a variant of the old saying "if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Whether you work on energy efficiency, solar, wind, nuclear, natural gas, or clean coal, you know what they can do and you tend to think that technology can solve all our energy problems.

In reality, each of these is important, but each has applications where it excels, and other applications where it does not excel. Judging where each is best is a complex matter involving the nature of the demand, the location, and a variety of other factors. I'm not going to get into that here. The other important factor, though, is that our society and our economy, both domestic and world-wide, are demanding ever more from our energy sector. Therefore, the basic reality, in my view, is that we do not have a choice between efficiency or clean coal, between wind or nuclear power, between solar or natural gas. We are going to need them all. We are going to need them to meet energy needs in the United States. We are going to need them to meet the rapidly growing energy demands of the developing world. We are going to need them to assure that we reduce the amount of carbon we emit into the atmosphere.

Too often, I have seen studies and reports that focus on just one technology or just one sector without addressing the big picture. If only we implemented all possible energy efficiency measures, we'd never have to do anything else. If we focused on building wind machines, we wouldn't need other sources of electricity. If we put solar collectors on every rooftop, we could do away with an electricity grid. OK, I am exaggerating what some proponents are saying about their technologies--but in some cases, I am not exaggerating very much. In truth, we all think our technology is a hammer, and we all think the energy problem is a nail.

It is therefore refreshing to see the recent publication by the National Research Council, "America's Energy Future: Technology and Transformation." It clearly states the need to 1) deploy more existing energy-efficient technologies in the near term; 2) develop and deploy advanced renewable energy sources, nuclear power plants, and coal with carbon capture and storage; 3) expand and modernize the nation's electrical transmission and distribution systems; and 4) improve vehicle efficiency, develop technologies for the conversion of biomass and coal-to-liquid fuels, and expand deployment of plug-in hybrids, battery-powered electric vehicles, and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. It recommends more R&D in all these areas, and it notes the need to address policy and regulatory barriers (and incentives) as an integral part of the development effort.

The report pulls no punches. It states that what we do in the next decade or so will set our course for many years to come. It acknowledges that the R&D will be expensive, and that some of the new technologies may cost more than what we have now. And it recognizes that not all research efforts will prove successful. Some research will not achieve its goals, some may be technical successes but economic failures, and some may be overtaken by other technologies.

What is important to me is that it clearly states that the R&D in multiple areas has to be done in parallel. This is a tall order, especially in our present economic situation, but the alternative is chilling to contemplate (both figuratively, and perhaps literally). We simply cannot focus just on wind, then move on if it does not prove capable of meeting all our needs. We cannot optimize energy efficiency and assume we will need no new energy supplies. In fact, at least in the near term, we can't stop producing petroleum either.

This is an important and thoughtful document, and represents the best combined thinking of many of the biggest leaders in the energy field in the United States. I recommend it highly. It should be required reading for everyone who works on energy matters.

1 comment:

  1. Gail - I am guilty of thinking of nuclear energy as a complete tool box, not just a hammer. I have visited museums displaying pacemaker RTG's smaller than my fingertip, written stories about NASA reactors small enough to fit into a trash can, interviewed people associated with the Army nuclear power program who built prefab reactors under the ice in Greenland and on Antarctica, operated submarine power plants, ridden on nuclear aircraft carriers and visited multi-unit central station nuclear plants.

    The range of potential applications is nearly infinite - outside of personal transportation - and the fuel is cheap and widely distributed. Better yet, there are no emissions to the environment of any pollutants.

    I know there is a lot of infrastructure out there designed for other sources of energy, but much of it is still useful when the generation sources get converted to fission. I will wipe away a little tear for those people whose life savings is invested in pipelines, wind turbine factories or coal mines, but do we really need all of those other energy sources?

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights