Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"The Devil's Excrement"

The words are from the former Venezuelan oil minister Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo. Alfonzo is considered to be the father of OPEC. Our insatiable need for oil has brought us global warming, Islamic fundamentalism, and environmental depredation. It has turned the United States and China into greedy irresponsible addicts that can't see beyond their next fix.

We can't be rid of the stuff soon enough. But what comes next? In an article in the September/October 2009 issue of Foreign Policy, author Michael Grunwald outlines and discusses the seven myths of alternative energy:
  1. "We Need to Do Everything Possible to Promote Alternative Energy. Not exactly. It's certainly clear that fossil fuels are mangling the climate and that the status quo is unsustainable. There is now a broad scientific consensus that the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than 25 percent by 2020 - and more than 80 percent by 2050. Even if the planet didn't depend on it, breaking our addictions to oil and coal would also reduce global reliance on petrothugs and vulnerability to energy-price spikes. There are financial, political, and technical pressures as well as time constraints that will force tough choices; solutions will need to achieve the biggest emissions reductions for the least money in the shortest time. We can still choose a truly alternative path. But we'd better hurry.
  2. Renewable Fuels Are the Cure for Our Addiction to Oil. Unfortunately not. Renewable fuels sound great in theory, and agricultural lobbyists have persuaded European countries and the United States to enact remarkably ambitious biofuels mandates to promote farm-grown alternatives to gasoline. But so far in the real world, the cures - mostly ethanol derived from corn in the United States or biodiesel derived from palm oil, soybeans, and rapeseed in Europe - have been significantly worse than the disease.
  3. If Today's Biofuels Aren't the Answer, Tomorrow's Biofuels Will Be. Doubtful. The latest U.S. rules, while continuing lavish support for corn ethanol, include enormous new mandates to jump-start second generation biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol derived from switchgrass. In theory, they would be less destructive than corn ethanol, which relies on tractors, petroleum-based fertilizers, and distilleries that emit way top much carbon. Even first-generation ethanol derived from sugar cane - which already provides half of Brazil's transportation fuel - is considerably greener than corn ethanol. But recent studies suggest that any biofuels requiring good agricultural land would still be worse than gasoline for global warming. Less of a disaster than corn ethanol is still a disaster.
  4. Nuclear Power Is the Cure for Our Addiction to Coal. Nope. Atomic energy is emissions free, so a slew of politicians and even some environmentalists have embraced it as a clean alternative to coal and natural gas that can generate power when there's no sun or wind. But nuclear power cannot fix the climate crisis. The first reason is timing: The West needs major cuts in emissions within a decade, and the first new U.S. reactor is only scheduled for 2017 - unless it gets delayed like every U.S. reactor before it. The bigger problem is cost - nearly three times as much as wind.
  5. There Is No Silver Bullet to the Energy Crisis. Probably not. But some bullets are a lot better than others; we ought to give them our best shot before we commit to evidently inferior bullets. And one renewable energy resource is the cleanest, cheapest, and most abundant of them all. It doesn't induce deforestation or require elaborate security. It doesn't depend on the weather. And it won't take years to build or bring to market; it's already universally available - it's called efficiency.
  6. We Need a Technological Revolution to Save the World. Maybe. In the long term, it's hard to imagine how (without major advances) we can reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050 while the global population increases and the developing world develops. So a clean-tech Apollo program modeled on the Manhattan Project makes sense. At some point, after we've milked efficiency for all the megawatts and megabarrels we can, we might need something new. If somebody comes up with a better idea by 2020, great! For now, we already have all the technology we need to start reducing consumption, and focus on the solutions that get the best emissions bang for the buck.
  7. Ultimately, We'll Need to Change Our Behaviors to Save the World. Probably. These days it's politically incorrect to suggest that going green will require even the slightest adjustment to our way of life, but let's face it: Jimmy Carter was right. It wouldn't kill you to turn down the heat and put on a sweater. Efficiency is a miracle drug, but conservation is even better; a Prius saves gas, a Prius sitting in the driveway while you ride your bike uses no gas. Even energy-efficient dryers use more power than clotheslines."

Great question - But what comes next?

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