Five years ago I started writing this blog site because I figured energy dependence on fossil fuels would destroy America. Nothing I’ve seen since then has changed my attitude in this regard, although initially I didn’t figure in the problems associated with climate change, nor did I fully appreciate the national security implications identified by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2012. The Joint Chiefs basically said relying on fossil fuels is the greatest threat to our national security, and they also said ‘climate change’ essentially changes everything.
And national politics, particularly those surrounding our first President of color, Barack Obama, overwhelmed my desire to explore the energy issues.
As it turns out, now that President Obama has been re-elected, the energy issues are resurfacing as important despite Republican obsessions over dismantling the social safety nets, including Social Security and Medicare that have been major distractions.
Most recently the President has proposed using $2 billion in gas and oil lease revenues to fund basic research and development to find ways to replace hydrocarbons as our primary transportation fuel. In the larger scheme of things energy, according to a New York Times article, the President is striving to “to build as broad an energy portfolio as possible for the country, with expanded oil and gas development; favorable tax treatment for nonpolluting sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy; loan guarantees for new nuclear plants; increased emphasis on energy efficiency; and research into long-term alternatives to fossil fuels.”
OK fine. I don’t think nuclear is going anywhere anytime soon, especially since the Japanese tsunami wiped out the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. And clean coal is a non starter too, although Texas has begun a $2.5 billion ‘test’ project for sequestering carbon dioxide gas from the use of coal for energy by burying it underground. In both cases, the ideas are non-economic. They are the most expensive ideas in the portfolio and they need the government to insure unintended consequences because the private markets simply won’t.
The simple fact is that the rest of the world, to the degree it can afford to right now, is moving away from fossil fuel dependence as fast as it can. From the Rocky Mountain Institute book “Reinventing Fire,” in 2010 four German states, totaling 10 million people, relied on windpower for 43-52% of their annual electricity needs. Denmark gets on average 26% of its energy from windpower. The Extramadura region of Spain gets 25% of its power from solar, while the entire country has 16% of its energy supplied by windpower. In the US, the Minnkota Power Cooperative supplied 38% of its retail sales from wind. Texas, yes that Texas, generated 8% of its electricity from wind in 2010, making it sixth in the world among countries, after China, the entire rest of the US, Germany, Spain and India.
While a lot of public discussion has involved solar, wind, hydro, thermal–the clean sustainable energy sources–the reality is that innovations that create efficiencies will drive most of the movement away from using fossil fuels. We’ll simply be using less energy to do more work by being efficient, not necessarily by building new power plants, whether they are sustainable and clean or not. Carbon fiber plane and auto frames will drop airplane and ground transportation weights by as much as 35%, and would raise car MPG ratings well into the 80MPG or greater ranges just by weight reduction. The newest airplanes are using 20% less fuel because they contain carbon fiber frames instead of steel or aluminum. This trend is still in its infancy, but will no doubt reduce annual transportation costs by billions of dollars within the next 10 years.
A national direct current grid, capable of transporting energy much longer distances more efficiently, would produce a national marketplace where producers of sustainable and clean energy supplies, most of which are situated in rural areas, can competitively price their energy into urban markets where most energy is used. And a movement towards energy ‘islands’ where neighborhoods or city districts contain smaller energy plants that can supply their customers even if the larger grid cannot for some reason, can raise energy security by several magnitudes. These types of modernizations work no matter what the energy source, but they definitely do make sustainable energy cheaper upfront where the initial resistance lies, because once built sustainable energy plants are far less expensive than fossil fueled plants.
The real impediment to all this is political. Fossil fuel incumbents are some of the most profitable and therefore politically powerful, corporations in the world. So far they’ve been able to successfully mute the publicity surrounding alternative energy sources, to divert everyone’s attention away from the real, substantive progress that’s been already made in sustainable sources and in energy efficiencies. Republicans will, no doubt, fight the President’s efforts to earmark $2 billion in gas and oil revenues (that’s over 10 years, so it’s very modest in the scheme of things) to support energy research and development.
But times are changing. Inevitably the price of gas and diesel fuels, and oil for heating, will rise simply because the rest of the planet is growing and as a result demanding larger and larger shares of these energy sources. These developing countries understand that the US model of fossil fuel dependent economic growth can no longer be duplicated, so they are aggressively building sustainable supplies. Nevertheless, in the meantime they will use fossil fuels too, even if they think fossil is more of a transition fuel (which it will be shown to be) rather than the bedrock fuel of their economies.
It’s a global race, in other words, to see who will be the most efficient user of energy. As the advertisement says, ‘the best way to save on gas is to buy gas less often.’ So it goes. It’s not a matter of using less energy, because energy use is going to climb as the world demand for it climbs, it’s a matter of getting more work done per unit of energy.