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Arrested Development
Scientists say we can solve our future energy crises with renewable sources. We have the
technology—but do we have the political will?
By William Kanapaux

My grandfather, owner of an eight-cylinder Chrysler with a massive steel frame, on occasion would complain that “they can send a man to the moon but they can’t make a road paint you can see in the rain.”

The issue of course was more about cost than technology. If the desire is there, the technology will follow. But state and local governments aren’t likely to spend the extra money to develop a glowing road paint when bridges need fixing and prisons need to be built.

There’s also a question of commitment. If, back in 1961, President Kennedy had declared that every road would have paint that glowed neon blue by the end of the decade, my grandfather would have been a happier man and this country would have the coolest-looking highway system on the planet.

Putting a man on the moon, though, would have dropped a few notches on the priority list, and maybe even now, in 2003, researchers would be begging for the funds necessary to make that possible.

With all the innovations and gadgets that have sprung up over the last 10 years, it’s easy to think of the ’60s and ’70s as the technological Dark Ages. But in one key respect, things have barely budged since the days of moon travel and eight-cylinder beasts roaming the nation’s highways.

In short, energy technology is stuck in a rut. But it doesn’t have to be. It all boils down to priorities.

Consider the 1960s. The space race had more to do with the Cold War than it did with the desire to explore the solar system. The motivations were largely those of immediate self-interest. The United States had to seize a strategic stronghold before the Russians did.

Memories of the devastation wrought by Fat Man and Little Boy at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were still fresh in the collective memory. Nobody wanted that, not on U.S. soil at least, and especially if the threat came from an orbiting rock we couldn’t reach.

Yet if global devastation was our greatest fear back then, we’re still well on the way to realizing our nightmares.

At the current pace of consumption, many natural resources are expected to run dry by 2100, if not 2050. And yet very little is done about it. This nation in particular, the largest consumer of energy resources by far, is like a teenager with a savings account and no job. As long as the money flows, what’s the problem?

But if the United States is like a teenager, then it’s one with a rap sheet. It knows the oil will run out eventually. The trick is to make sure that it still has its share after supplies run out for everybody else. And that takes some muscle. So it spends $100 billion or so preserving “our American way of life” in a desert 6,000 miles away.

Meanwhile, a much larger crisis looms on the horizon as U.S. energy consumption continues to outpace production at a growing rate. The Department of Energy has projected that total energy consumption in the United States will increase 34 percent between 2001 and 2025. U.S. energy production, on the other hand, which already lags behind consumption by a significant amount, will increase only 29 percent.

The result? Out of the 140 quadrillion or so BTUs that the U.S. will consume in total energy by 2025, only about 90 quadrillion BTUs will be produced in this country.

The rest will come from imports of oil and natural gas. And that means more troops to protect the oil reserves in the Persian Gulf region and to safeguard the pipelines and shipping lanes necessary to feed the U.S. energy habit.

The problem goes far beyond the automobile. At this point it’s pretty clear that America’s love affair with all things big, powerful and gas-guzzling isn’t about to end anytime soon, not as long as automakers are willing to enable the addiction and the U.S. military presence abroad can keep oil prices relatively stable.

But there are plenty of technologies that can turn the tide, if only the government is willing to invest in developing them.

The Bush administration released its National Energy Policy in May 2001 based on the energy department’s projections. It proposed building 1,300 to 1,900 new power plants by 2020 and laying hundreds of thousands of miles of new gas pipelines and power lines. Use of natural gas would increase by as much as 36 percent, and coal use would climb 21 percent.

But there is a better way, according to the Clean Energy Blueprint, released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in October 2001.

Renewable energy sources, not including hydropower, could produce 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2020. This would include power generated by wind, biomass (plant and animal matter converted into energy), geothermal and solar energy.

Adopting these energy sources and developing the technology to make them useful on a large scale would replace 975 of the new power plants that the Bush administration wants to build, according to the blueprint. It also would retire 180 existing coal plants and 14 nuclear plants.

This is no small matter. Production of electricity is the largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions, accounting for more than 40 percent of the U.S. total.

The Clean Energy Blueprint says that adoption of these energy sources and other environment-friendly policies would reduce the use of natural gas by 31 percent and coal by 60 percent by 2020. It would save more oil in 18 years than could be extracted from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 60 years.

Carbon-dioxide emissions would be reduced by two-thirds, and emission of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides would drop by more than 55 percent. These initiatives would save consumers $440 billion by 2020, when annual savings would reach $105 billion a year. That translates to $350 a year per family—a sort of renewable tax cut, if you will.

Getting there, however, would require a commitment to investing in the research and development necessary to achieve the blueprint’s goals. Otherwise, we’re stuck building new power plants, exploring for oil in the Arctic and other fragile areas, running natural-gas lines through the Amazon and fighting a series of wars to keep the oil flowing.

It’s certainly something to ponder on a hazy day when pollution hangs heavy over the landscape, choking the air in both city and country. The blue skies of childhood have given way to a white haze that never quite seems to let up.

True leadership in these troubled times would see a path toward sustainable energy sources and freedom from dependence on politically troubled regions. The technology is there for the taking. The question is whether we have the will to develop it.

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