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posted 11/10/04

Contact: Katie Mastriani
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Our Energy Future: Learning on the Job
by Professors David Walker, Klaus Lackner and Roger Anderson

If China's increasing demand for oil to fuel its industrialization is the reason we are getting beaten up at the gas pumps now, get ready for a pummeling in the next few decades. The scope of the disaster will be inversely proportional to the quality and number of options we have in place when gasoline hits $10 a gallon at the pumps. The rate at which oil use tails off depends on the level of price pain and the speed at which we develop alternatives, but world oil production has peaked. Oil will not be the centerpiece it is today. The time for an action plan is now, and long overdue.

By 2050, world population is expected to grow from six billion to roughly ten billion. If we all on average have the per capita energy demands of a moderately industrialized country like Portugal, world demand will more than double. [The U.S. would have to cut its per capita consumption by 75% to achieve this average.]

Picture it this way: To meet this projected demand in one particular way, we would need to find and put into the energy pool the equivalent of roughly six new, very large electric power generating stations every week for the next 50 years, and find the extra fuel to power them. With a lead time of five to ten years to get these monstrous plants from blueprint to backhoe, we’re already behind schedule. That’s a conservative estimate since it’s unlikely that America’s per capita energy consumption will ever resemble Portugal’s again. Conservation, while a good thing in itself, is not an adequate alternative. The U.S. could surely be more efficient, but we cannot wring an extra energy savings of 75 percent out of the system. There simply is not that much preventable waste.

Proposing draconian conservation measures for third world economies whose citizens aspire to improve their living standards — the kind that come through energy-intensive activities — certainly will not help global political stability. What is there to save if your energy budget is primarily twigs, berries, and cattle dung already? The third world is where the bulk of the new demand is projected.

Education and training, thus, are critical to identify, develop and show how to implement the best viable energy options and then win their acceptance by the broader community. There is no point in having great engineering options like the Shoreham and Seabrook nuclear plants if the community will not accept them. We still do not know which energy options will be best, nor is it clear that we would choose the best options, if they were known. Other possible options may exist that are not even on the table for consideration. Education and research is crucial in several areas: responsible combustion of fossil fuel and strategies for CO2 sequestration; solar energy and renewables, and nuclear fusion. Market forces could move us quickly to a nuclear future if fusion technology ever realizes its theoretical promise of enormous energy without the waste and security issues of nuclear fission. Above all, we need to be prepared to accept and implement more than one solution. Different world regions have different boundary conditions that will optimize diverse solutions. Western centralized electric generation stations may be less well suited than distributed generation in parts of Asia and Africa. Although we need to study these problems and continue to educate ourselves, the clock is ticking. Because of alternative infrastructure lead times and the need to continue economic activity, we will continue to burn fossil fuel — coal, oil and gas — for a long time. We’re going to have to learn on the job.

The authors are professors with The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world’s leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.