Monday, November 17, 2008

U.S. Energy Problems

The U. S. has about than 4.5% of the world population, but we use some 25% of the energy the world's humans consume. So, point one, we need to get a lot less profligate in our use of energy--less stupid things like overnight lights (e.g., in big buildings), Christmas lights, energy-wasting light bulbs, vehicles that get less than 40 or 50 miles per gallon (and 95% of private vehicles with a driver only--no passengers--but outfitted to carry 6 or 8), food (and everything else) shipped hundreds and thousands of miles, minuscule use of mass transit, etc. We simply do not use our energy resources efficiently. Did you know, for example, that of a gallon of oil extracted from the ground, approximately 95% of the energy in that oil is consumed transporting and transforming it? Only about 5% goes to final fuel or heat, or to some other useful purpose.

Point two: Although we have vast and adequate energy resources, we buy most of the energy we use from foreign countries. We even have vast clean ("green" renewable) energy resources in the U.S. We have a huge, heavy, steady wind corridor through the mid-west. We have vast shoreline tide and wave energy resources. We have significant geothermal sources that could provide energy from the heat of the Earth's innards. And we have enormous untapped solar energy resources--if one fourth of the vacant commercial-building-top space in the U.S. were covered with solar panels, that could provide enough energy to satisfy the present needs of the entire country.

There are a couple of reasons we do not use the energy we have. The main one is habit or tradition: it is simpler to do things the way we have grown used to doing them (and a lot of big business is financially ensconced). But we also do not have the infrastructure to make efficient use of these resources. It would require an expenditure of approximately $6-$10 billion over at least ten years to build a sufficient power grid to bring the wind, wave/tide, and geothermal power from its sources to where it is needed. There are also some limitations imposed by available technology, but these are trivial. Sure, we could improve our methods and machines, but essentially we know, engineering-wise, what we need to know.

Drilling for more oil is problematic. Whether in Anwar or offshore (or anywhere), the R & D and infrastructure costs are high, and the environmental risks and damage are significant. Other hydrocarbon fuels--coal, natural gas, and methane hydrate--are available in enormous amounts, but here again the R & D and infrastructure costs are high, and the environmental costs are, frankly, unacceptable.

What about nuclear power? There are three problems. First and foremost, it has a bad reputation with the public; this is perhaps largely unwarranted, but in any event it is difficult to overcome. Second, the initial capital and infrastructural costs are enormous. Third, there are significant technical problems to be overcome, not just security in preventing another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, but in processing, transporting, and securing nuclear-reactor scats. There is no technically proven way to reprocess radioactive byproducts to make them safe (though it is theoretically feasible) nor any sane way to store them safely (unprocessed) for tens of thousands of years.

The U.S. has significant energy problems. Some "solutions" such as McCain's proposals to "Drill, Baby, Drill" and to provide a $400 million prize for invention of an efficient battery are just plain silly. Some, such as T. Boone Pickens' idea to wind-electrify West Texas are intriguing. But, overall, there are technically feasible solutions. What is needed is public information, political will, and economic heft.