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America's Energy Future

Nuna beans


May 25, 2001: Derided as "slick," by SUV-cruising House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, dismissed for failing to provide "one more kilowatt to California, this summer" by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, called "destructive for birds and wildlife" by Audubon Society President, John Flicker, and condemned as a "scam" by Kert Davies of Greenpeace, the US National Energy Policy Group's report "Reliable, Affordable, and Environmentally Sound Energy for America's Future" outlines the place of energy in the American economy and the challenges that America faces if it is to avoid disruptive energy shortages, while reducing the environmental impacts of energy use (1,2).

Notwithstanding Congressman Gephardt's comment, the report, which Mr. Gephardt must not have read, is decidedly unslick, containing, for example, within a single paragraph (Page 6-10) the lamentable construction "hydrogen may be able to be used...," the nonsensical statement that renewable energy comprises "...sources, such as solar, nuclear, and fossil," and the misleading implication that hydrogen is an energy source. Perhaps Congressman Gephardt looked at the pictures, of which a few certainly border on the idiotic: for example, an elderly couple in their home where, so the caption seems to suggest, they have just received a high heating bill. Most of the pictures, however, are useful, and the report's many graphs and tables convey important information.

Despite its imperfections, the report is readable, well informed, and offers the essential background to an intelligent appreciation of the energy issues with which the government of the largest industrial economy must currently deal. It usefully highlights America's remarkable success in raising energy-use efficiency over recent decades, a fact little recognized by environmentalists. It reports, for example, that between 1970 and 1999, America's real GDP increased 147%, while energy use increased only 42% (Figure 3.1), and that since the early 1980's, real GDP has doubled, while energy use increased only 22% (Overview, Figure 4, shown above). Despite this rapid increase in energy-use efficiency, however, the rate of improvement must be accelerated if growth in potentially climate-warming, carbon dioxide emissions is to be halted.

The report demonstrates the challenge of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. Today, renewable sources account for only 3% of America's energy supply. In California the figure is higher (12%), but there the largest component is geothermal power, which has yet to achieve economic viability and which is unavailable in most parts of the country. The prospect for growth in renewable energy sources is bright, but it will take many years for that growth to have a major impact on overall energy use. Currently, photovoltaic cells account for less than one tenth of one percent of America's total electricity supply, and provide power at 3 to 10 times the cost of hydroelectricity.

A wide range of options for further increases in energy-use efficiency (energy efficiency in the jargon of the report) are reviewed and proposals made to achieve specific advances. Included are regulatory and other changes to enhance the electrical power distribution grid. Such improvement will allow better use of the most energy-efficient power plants for the provision of base-load power. It will also provide more opportunities for the construction of highly efficient combined heat and power plants (up to 60% energy-use efficiency versus 30 to 40% for stand-alone thermal power plants), which must deliver power to the grid from wherever industrial process heat happens to be required. The use of high-temperature superconducting cable, already employed on a limited scale, will cut powerline energy losses, which currently waste up to 5% of total electrical energy supply. Other proposals relate to promoting the use of energy-efficient home construction techniques and household appliances, and the worldwide distribution of energy-efficient technologies for electricity generation and industrial production.

A section of the report deals with ways of increasing American oil self-sufficiency. This has been ridiculed as an issue fabricated by White House oilmen intent on helping friends in the industry. Today, however, world peace depends largely on American military power, and the exercise of that power depends on oil. For the purpose of deterring aggression, American power dependent on oil from wells in America's own back yard is vastly more credible that power dependent on oil shipped over thousands of miles of salt water by potentially hostile states.

References
(1) National Energy Policy Development Group, 2001. Reliable, affordable, and environmentally sound energy for America's future. http:www.whitehouse.gov/energy

(2) Reaction to Bush's Energy Report. 2001. Reuters Report, via Yahoo.

Related naturalSCIENCE Commentary

naturalSCIENCE Editorial. 2001. After Kyoto: A Realistic Approach to Climate Management.

naturalSCIENCE invites comments or questions relating to this or any other item. Please direct correspondence to publisher@naturalscience.com.


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