Some of you may know that my dad and I are working on a book about energy policy this summer. We’re not trying to write a textbook or tell you how we’re all doomed, partly because that would be depressing but also because we believe it’s true. This is supposed to be a book for a general audience. There is a lot of cause for hope where energy is concerned, and we’re hoping to bring some of these success stories to light (or life?). Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
. . . We so often hear depressing news about the environment: an oil spill that threatens the livelihoods of millions of people and the lives of millions of animals; industry practices that may contaminate wells across rural Pennsylvania; mountain tops disappearing so that the minerals inside can be extracted; a climate shifting under our feet. . . Do we have the technology, and the will, to prevent catastrophe while maintaining the lifestyles that we’ve come to take for granted? Is it years in the future, or is it out there right now?
We stand on the brink of an era of unprecedented technological innovation, and there’s little evidence that the ingenuity that produced this technology will falter. In the deepest oceans and coldest reaches of the earth, we’re finding sources of oil that we never knew existed. Yet even as technology allows us to expand our oil supply, it is providing us with cheaper, cleaner, safer alternatives. Although challenges still exist, the natural gas supplies in this country are enough to sustain demand for a century, helping to replace coal-fired power plants and petroleum-powered cars.
As we look for further flung sources of hydrocarbons, our technology is also becoming more efficient. Cars forty years from now will go twice as far as they do today—or more—on the same amount of fuel. Many may be powered by electricity, and plug into outlets in your garage, or run instead on hydrogen, emitting only water from their tailpipes. Light bulbs will produce the same amount of light and significantly less heat while lasting longer and using less energy. A SmartGrid system and greater mobile integration could change the way we think about the thermostat. And as the dead dinosaurs and Jurassic-era plants that power our world today become more expensive and less acceptable, the price of renewable energy is plummeting. Solar and wind, which today contribute a far smaller fraction of our electricity supply than most people realize, nonetheless stand poised to revolutionize the electrical grid. Breakthroughs in modularization and miniaturization will help to drive all of this change. Even nuclear energy, notably lacking in emissions of carbon dioxide, stands poised to make a comeback: Russia just delivered its first barge-portable civilian nuclear reactor to a city on its remote northern shores.
Challenges remain. The specter of global climate change, with steadily increasing temperatures, stronger storms, rising sea levels, and shrinking polar caps add a layer of urgency to the shift to a carbon-neutral economy. Fossil fuels still form the backbone of the economy. Renewables still require heavy subsidization. Nuclear has prohibitively high start-up costs. Pricing carbon, as everyone from Congressman Markey to Bill McKibben says, will speed this transition. But more consensus exists on energy issues, at least in the places that matter, than polls might show. These decisions are not based on the passions of the moment or on the emotions of the crowd: they’re based on sheer economics. In a market economy, market forces will prevail in the long run, and the economics are slowly but surely pushing industry and consumers towards a more sustainable path. Unlike with fossil fuels, which are burned to generate steam that turns a turbine and therefore changed into an unusable form, renewables need only to be converted into another form of energy, not altered. In the long run, this requires less energy inputs for the same result. Given that we have the technology to convert its power into electricity, any time the wind blows or the sun shines without wind turbines or solar cells converting into electric current we are wasting an opportunity for cheap energy. Even the major oil companies see which way the wind is shifting: last year BP—the same BP responsible for the tragic Deepwater Horizon incident—spent over a billion dollars on solar and wind technology in 2011, while in the same year ExxonMobil devoted $600 million to research on the use of algae and other alternative sources to replace fossil fuels. The technology to move away from an economy premised on carbon emissions does exist, and it’s getting better every day. . .