Peter and I were unable to get together this month's 'New Energy Currents' postings due to various unavoidable professional and academic obligations - including a mind-expanding take-home midterm for my Alternative Energy Resources class, in which I sit in a room with a bunch of engineers and try and do my best impression of being able to understand these science guys when they talk about the mechanical/physical/chemical principles underlying various alternative energy technologies. Interesting for sure, but no fun - I feel really unhappily out of touch when I don't have time for the monthly energy plow.
Fortunately, it's karmically consoling that one of my teachers from that same class, Dr. Klaus Lackner, has just published an excellent paper (with bigshot Jeffrey Sachs), "A Robust Strategy For Sustainable Energy" (PDF) that covers much of the next few years' worth of energy news in one (long) shot. You can read the press release for the report here (via Gary Jones, who has some typically worthy words on this), but the translation into enviro press release-ese doesn't really reflect the breadth of the perspective presented in the full paper, which you can and should check out here [PDF format] if you're at all interested in this issue. The authors themselves sum up their work as follows, emphases added:
—The use of large quantities of energy is central to the functioning of an advanced economy. There are severe limits to energy conservation even in the long run. Global economic growth will bring about significant increases in primary energy demand.
— Energy resources are fungible, especially among the fossil fuels. For example, coal can be converted into liquid fuels such as gasoline at low cost. So, too, can other, nonconventional fossil fuels like oil sands and shale and potentially the methane hydrates that are abundant on the sea floor. Noncarbon energy sources such as nuclear and solar energy could each provide a substantial fraction of the world’s long-term energy needs, but both present problems in the short term.
—There are no serious long-term (century-scale) shortages of fossil fuel supply once the interconvertibility of oil and other fossil fuels is taken into account. Even the arrival of “peak oil”—the point at which oil production reaches a maximum—would not mean a global energy shortage at today’s prices. However, the transition from oil to other sources of liquid fuel will require a significant lead time, and engineering that transition should be part of public policy.
—The greater constraints are likely to emerge from environmental concerns, especially the rising concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) acting as a greenhouse gas. Carbon emissions will have to be mitigated, because the business-as-usual course is fraught with grave global risks. The limits on the global oil supply will not reduce the risks from CO2, since coal and other low-cost fossil fuels will in any event substitute for declining supplies of petroleum and natural gas, and their CO2 emissions will be larger, not smaller.—Realistic technologies that can mitigate the carbon challenge up to the middle of this century at modest cost are nearly ready for application. The centerpiece of such a strategy will most likely be carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) at power plants and other large industrial units such as steel and cement factories. The cost of implementing these technologies on a large scale is likely to be below 1 percent of gross world product if they are carried out with a long lead time. In addition to CCS, conversion of the vehicle fleet to hybrid or other lower-carbon technologies is very likely to be cost effective and might well pay for itself...
They discuss the century-long time scale as well, with a healthy optimism about our ability to develop and deploy advanced zero-carbon technologies. The paper is comprehensive and I don't really disagree with anything they say so far (I haven't gotten to the policy recommendations yet, of course).
However, I think that they may be missing a significant part of the picture. The 'energy problem' stands not on just two, but three legs - not just environmental damage and limited resources, but security drives much of the current concern, and is likely be an increasingly significant motivating force behind our search for energy alternatives over the next few decades. And not just 'security' in the limited sense of 'reducing our dependence on oil imports from the Middle East', but in the broader sense of the decentralized, resilient energy system envisioned by John Robb in his fascinating, must-read article in Fast Company, "Security: Power to the People". I've excerpted only the relevant grafs - read the whole piece for the rest of Robb's big picture:
We have entered the age of the faceless, agile enemy. From London to Madrid and Nigeria to Russia, stateless terrorist groups have emerged to score blow after blow against us. Driven by cultural fragmentation, schooled in the most sophisticated technologies, and fueled by transnational crime, these groups are forcing corporations and individuals to develop new ways of defending themselves. The end result of this struggle will be a new, more resilient approach to national security, one built not around the state but around private citizens and companies. That new system will change how we live and work--for the better, in many ways--but the road getting there may seem long at times...
The terrorists have developed the ability to fight nation-states strategically--without weapons of mass destruction. This new method is called "systems disruption," a simple way of attacking the critical networks (electricity, oil, gas, water, communications, and transportation) that underpin modern life. Such disruptions are designed to erode the target state's legitimacy, to drive it to failure by keeping it from providing the services it must deliver in order to command the allegiance of its citizens. Over the past two years, attacks on the oil and electricity networks in Iraq have reduced and held delivery of these critical services below prewar levels, with a disastrous effect on the country, its people, and its economy...
The strikes of the future will be strategic, pinpointing the systems we rely on, and they will leave entire sections of the country without energy and communications for protracted periods. But the frustration and economic pain that result will have a curious side effect: They will spur development of an entirely new, decentralized security system, one that devolves power and responsibility to a mix of private companies, individuals, and local governments...
Cities, most acutely affected by the new disruptions, will move fastest to become self-reliant, drawing from a wellspring of new ideas the market will put forward. These will range from building-based solar systems from firms such as Energy Innovations to privatized disaster and counterterrorist responses...By 2016, we may see the trials of the previous decade as progress in disguise. The grassroots security effort will do more than just insulate our gas lines and high schools. It will also spur positive social change: So-called green systems will quickly shed their tree-hugger status and be seen as vital components of our economic and personal security.
Insert whatever standard disclaimers you want about buying into Robb's Global Guerrillas framework wholesale - it's a potent work of ongoing futurism that any serious attempt at prognostication ignores at its peril. The Engineer-Poet has touched on this subject before in the context of economic crises and natural disasters in his post from last October, "Alternative Energy is Civil Defense," and his points are at least as relevant to the threat of terrorists employing systems disruption techniques against our energy infrastructure.
Security concerns can't be our sole consideration as we work to evolve our energy systems - continued economic growth (globally, not just in the US) is obviously our top priority for the forseeable future, and environmental issues will continue to shape the market. But the security benefits from more robust, decentralized energy systems should be valued when we consider the costs and benefits of various alternatives - preferably before, but most certainly after the US gets hit with its first systems disruption attack. The energy crisis of the '70s provoked by the Arab oil embargo spurred enormous changes to the functioning of global energy markets, creating a much more flexible and efficient system for trading oil and gas that completely blunted the impact of the 'oil weapon' within a decade; I think we'll see even deeper and more obvious changes to energy markets and technologies in the coming decades as a result of these new threats. Stay tuned, and keep watching this space - we'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next month.