Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Future of Energy (in 500 words)

As the environmental and national security repercussions of the “age of oil” grow too large to discount, governments around the world face pressure to explore clean, affordable, and renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, no existing energy source can affordably and cleanly displace petroleum (the world's current leadings source of energy) at least given our current rates of consumption. Even if human ingenuity developed an ideal energy alternative in the coming years, ever-changing political, demographic, and geological conditions render impossible the ability to predict future energy crises—few could have predicted the climactic consequences of greenhouse gas emissions prior to the middle twentieth century, for example. “Solving” today’s energy crisis will require two important endeavors: 1) reducing total energy demand, and 2) building a low-impact, diverse, and resilient energy system.

Every energy source to which humanity has access poses some ecological, economic, and/or geopolitical cost. Deciding where to invest research and infrastructure is a matter of balancing these costs. First and foremost, however, solving our current energy crisis must involve investing in “nega-watts” (Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 2000), or increasing whole-system industrial efficiency, clever building design, urban development that reduces the need for automobile trips, improvements to the national energy grid, the localization of food systems, etc. Reducing the demand for energy will render feasible relatively clean energy sources that seem financially infeasible today.

By reducing the number of steps between direct sunshine and energy useful for human activity, energy media like solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, and ambient heat geothermal pumps yield relatively low environmental costs. Tidal energy, a product of centrifugal and gravitational shifts on our planet, can also deliver electricity at relatively low environmental costs. Our future energy systems should rely principally on these systems. Relying on these energy sources, however, requires a re-imagination of the energy grid and the scale at which most USA regions produce energy. Building a low-impact, diverse, and resilient energy system is impossible at current geographic scales. In addition to posing large security risks, large regional-scale coal, nuclear, and gas plants lose the vast majority of energy as heat through the walls of the facility and the transmission of electricity over long distances. We can capture this efficiency by localizing energy production at the neighborhood scale, and investing the difference in further research. By investing in energy research with the savings incurred through captured efficiency, we are more likely to avoid energy crises in the future. If we invest in constant research and infrastructure that is not cost prohibitive to clean, replace and/or upgrade, we will transition from a boom-and-bust energy economy to a resilient and responsive system of energy supply. Of course, solar, wind, ambient geothermal, and tidal energy present their own caveats. Each requires space, and may result in localized environmental problems. I am convinced, however, that relatively localized problems are more likely to be solved by concerned neighbors than are geographically diffuse dilemmas that fossil energy has caused.

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