Governmental Energy Policy and the Future
For too long we have depended upon relatively inefficient fossil fuels as the source of virtually all of our energy, whether it be for heating, transportation or electricity. Fossil fuels are long-chain hydrocarbons which release heat upon decomposition. There are much more efficient sources of energy available to us, and ones that won’t run out, if we are willing to front the initial costs and take the risks necessary to find them. One of these risks is investing in the research to determine what can be done and how best to do it. We have vast, untapped resources of much higher potential than those which currently power most of the world. It is only sensible that we should make use of them. The Congress should resolve to direct our country, by force of law, prudence and wisdom, into a state of energy independence.
For the purposes of this discussion, energy independence describes a state of being in which a country can supply its own energy needs from within, with no necessity to import energy. Realistically, some energy would be imported due to economic factors, but the point is these imports do not arise from an absolute necessity to do so. With respect to oil, the term production refers to the amount of oil extracted, processed and consumed in the natural economic cycle. Also regarding oil, ‘reserves’ refers to the oil that has been discovered but not yet extracted.
It is has been determined, and is only logical, that the world’s natural supply of petroleum and petroleum distillates is limited. Even if the world itself were pure oil, it would still be of finite volume. It is also generally understood that renewable energy sources make up but a small portion of our national energy diet. In fact, less than 15% of our total domestic energy use comes from renewable resources (NCEP 41). Of one thing I am confident: the world's crude oil reserves will be depleted within two generations if nothing changes. In fact, the Reserves-to-Production ratio for the United States indicates that, at 2003 reserve estimates and levels of production, the US’s supply of oil will be depleted in less than 10 years (Radler 45). Under the same statistical analysis, the UK has about 5 years worth of oil, Canada has 55.5+ years, Saudi Arabia has 84 years and Kuwait has 143 years worth of oil (Radler 45).
An additional problem is that production levels are increasing to meet the rapidly increasing demand, but the total volume of oil in existence is not. According to oil exploration geologist Marion Hubbert’s models of oil discovery and production, discovery has already peaked in the continental US but production continues to climb (Goodstein-Gilloon 14). This means that as production will continue to expand as companies attempt to meet the growing demand and that the rate of discovery will be increasingly insufficient to support the expansion. The curves of both models are bell-shaped due to their basis in the natural consumption pattern of a limited resource, and their peaks are offset in time because of both the production curve’s dependence on the discovery curve and the time it takes begin exploiting discovered resources. When the exploitation time passes from the discovery curve’s crash, then the production curve will crash.
Technologies exist which will allow our global society to progress beyond resources that will run out in less than a few centuries. Some of these technologies are well suited to easing the transition from an oil-based energy market to a renewables-based market. Other technologies show great potential to free us from our dependence on a limited resource. These latter technologies will require a much more focused commitment to research and development. This additional R&D is necessary to make them economically feasible, but the time and resources exist if we will take the initiative.
The Thermal Depolymerization Process (TDP) can convert any hydrocarbon-based waste into high-quality oil, clean-burning gas and purified minerals (Lemley 51). It uses high temperatures and high pressures to break long-chain hydrocarbons into shorter chains, which are identical to natural oil derivatives. It can process plastic bottles, old tires, hospital waste and raw sewage. Even biohazardous wastes and viruses are broken down by TDP (Lemley 53).
According to Brian Appel, CEO of Changing World Technologies, TDP has been proven to be 85% efficient (Lemley 52). This means that the process consumes only 15% as much energy as it produces. Each plant can power itself on the gas it produces alone. Private investors have already provided $40 million and the federal government has given $12 million for development (Lemley 52). This is an excellent example of positive investment by the government in private industry’s innovative capability.
Nuclear fission is one source of energy which has proven its power, reliability and safety throughout the more than half century since it was first harnessed. The past few decades in particular have demonstrated the excellent reliability and safety with which nuclear power facilities can operate (NCEP 58). According to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission representative with whom I spoke at length, nuclear power plants release less radiation into the environment than coal-fired plants. This is because nuclear power plants are designed to contain and control their waste, while coal plants simply run their waste through less-than-perfect scrubbers and then dump it into the atmosphere. Nuclear power is now economically equal to coal and natural gas, whose prices continue to rise (NCEP 58).
Nuclear power’s greatest hurdle in the US is public perception, specifically the ‘Not In My Backyard’ (or NIMBY) effect. Essentially, though people may desire the benefits of having a nuclear power plant, no one wants to live near one, though we’ve already seen that coal plants release much more radiation. Also, fears of terrorist attack are over-done. The security forces protecting our nuclear power plants are mostly ex-military and ex-law enforcement and are as well trained as they are equipped. Just as poorly grounded is the paranoia of a meltdown. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ensures that every nuclear power plant has multiple passive and active failsafe systems, each with its own redundancies. Nuclear power is a proven source of efficient energy, derived from a relatively abundant resource, and by the nature of its design it is safe and reliable. It simply has a public-image problem.
For the final goal of energy independence, we will ultimately have to turn to technologies that are in varying stages of development and implementation. Resources like wind- and solar-power are already showing great promise as sources of renewable energy. Both derive their energy from the sun, which is a source of energy we do not expect to expire within the reasonable future.
Wind-derived energy is a rapidly expanding market, with most of its continental US market on the west coast and a growing market in the Midwest. Spain and Ireland have been among the first nations to expand their use of wind turbines, particularly the larger offshore units (GE 2). General Electric has emplaced a wind farm consisting of 7 – 3.6 MW (megawatt) wind turbines off the coast of Ireland, the first megawatt-class offshore wind farm (GE 3).
Denmark is a world leader in renewable energy implementation. The Danish government created a program for its islands to compete for the opportunity to free themselves from oil (Mandelbaum 50). The island of Samsø and its 4,400 residents won the competition, and were awarded substantial financial support by the government. The primary technologies they have been implementing are advanced versions of solar, wind, biogas and wood resources (Mandelbaum 50). Using these technologies, Samsø has met its own energy needs of about 135 gigawatt-hours per year. The replacement of gasoline-dependent vehicles has yet to be affected on a large scale, but for now the islanders compensate by producing an excess of electricity for transmission to the mainland. A few of the farmers plan to convert their diesel vehicles to run on the rapeseed oil they produce (Mandelbaum 52).
A similar experiment was tried in 1992 on Beaver Island, in Lake Michigan. The goal was to lessen and eventually remove the island’s dependence on expensive and unreliable power from the mainland. The primary reason for the project’s failure was not a technological problem; it was simply that the project did not have sufficient enthusiasm or leadership to bring it to fruition (Mandelbaum 50). A major part of the Samsø project was to build support for the project by giving the locals a direct investment in its success. Private and cooperative ownership got the local populace more personally invested in the project and more enthusiastic about it (Mandelbaum 52). There is much hope that Samsø will provide a guide for other communities to become, for the most part, self-sustaining. Samsø being predominantly agrarian may pose some concept-implementation problems for more developed communities, but these types of issues will help to ensure flexibility in implementation.
It is not difficult to imagine a Samsø-style project expanded and applied under the US Department of Energy. Naturally, the specifics of the project will have to be adjusted to better suit our economy and culture. For instance, the Danish government forces power companies to buy excess wind power at rates higher than market value (Mandelbaum 52). While this would not be received well in the US market, the fact that renewable resources are becoming competitive with traditional resources is a positive sign. Even with the necessary adjustments, the basic goals and methods of the Samsø project can be easily conserved. Focusing on small to medium communities would allow the Department of Energy to encourage localized power generation without trying to take on projects of too large a scale too soon. Over time, the experience gained by experimenting with small and medium sized community systems can be applied to larger cities. It should be recognized, however, that renewable energy sources show less positive economic response to economies of scale than do other resources (Mandelbaum 54). This may only mean that the smaller communities will be able to produce a surplus for sale to the larger cities. Perhaps the larger cities will find it necessary and more economical to buy from these outlying towns.
The United States’ current power grid is composed of a few, very large power plants whose electricity must be sent across interstate transmission lines. There is a vast thermodynamic inefficiency produced by this long-range transmission (Mandelbaum 55). In addition, the switching systems that control this high voltage transmission are susceptible to faults, which can be caused by anything from human error to a solar storm (Mandelbaum 55). With this in mind, it only makes sense that a system of smaller, more numerous plants and grids would increase the overall efficiency and reliability of the national grid. These increases in efficiency and reliability would naturally reduce electricity’s direct cost to the consumer.
Using technologies proven in the Samsø project, the United States should begin taking steps to emplace renewable energy facilities in towns and small cities. Going beyond Samsø would require only the public’s dedication to the goal of energy independence. Research and development funding for renewable resources should be expanded both within the public sector and the private sector. Experience has shown that private industry is much more efficient than government when it has reason to be, but to limit our research efforts to either the public or the private sector would be to leave out scientists who carry a potential for great discovery.
Instead of the federal government footing the entire bill, they should offer significant economic incentives to companies who invest themselves in renewable energy development and implementation. A focused system of subsidies, tax-cuts and other economic incentives would give a powerful boost to the energy industry’s expansion of renewable resources. This means not just encouraging research, but also greatly encouraging the construction and expansion of non-carbon energy facilities. Also, to help pay for all of this expansion, the federal government could auction tradable pollution permits. The revenue-generating potential of this enterprise alone is approximately $26 - $36 Billion over 10 years (NCEP xiv).
All that has been proposed here are a few tentative steps, testing the water before jumping in. A gentle transition will allow the growth aspects of the economic shift to override uncertainties and doubts. Also, a slower transition will allow stepping stones like TDP and nuclear energy to slowly ebb in and out. It is very possible that they may stay with us for quite some time, due to their great economic potential. Even the oil and coal industries are expected to welcome TDP for the benefits it can offer them (Lemley 55).
The United States can only achieve energy independence if we act soon. Every day we delay implementation of the technologies proven on the island of Samsø, we grow one step closer to another energy crisis. But this crisis will not be a hiccup like what we experienced in the 1970s and what we are feeling now (Goodstein-Gilloon 14). Couple this with the expectation that the United States’ demand for electricity is expected to increase 50% by 2025 (Mandelbaum 50), and you can see the storm clouds on the horizon.
All we need is an overwhelming uproar of support for these policies from the people, or a strong push by the President and key members of Congress. The Congress should not fear bold action, especially when these policies are but small steps toward the goal of energy independence. Energy independence for the United States, and to a lesser extent the communities thereof, will strengthen our economy and our morale by taking a major part of our economy out of the hands of foreign energy suppliers, reducing pollution and reducing energy costs.
National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP). Dec 2004. Ending the Energy Stalemate: A Bipartisan Strategy to Meet America’s Energy Challenges. Washington, DC: National Commission on Energy Policy.
Marilyn Radler. 22 Dec 2003. “Enterprise, GulfTerra to merge, form new US MLP,” Oil & Gas Journal, 101.49: 40 – 45.
David Goodstein, Frank J. Gilloon. Fall 2004. “An End of Oil?,” energy: News…Interpretation…Analysis, volume 29: 14 – 18.
Brad Lemley. May 2003. “Anything Into Oil,” Discover, volume 24 number 5: 50 – 57.
Robb Mandelbaum. June 2004. “[Green]mark,” Discover, volume 25 number 6: 48 – 55.
GE Wind Energy. 2004. “3.6s offshore wind turbine.” [web page] August 16th, 2004. http://www.gepower.com/prod_serv/products/wind_turbines/en/downloads/ge_36_brochure.pdf
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