Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Weightier Analogy

Americans, we are being told, are energy addicts. Even George Bush has declared that Americans are addicted to oil. With the surge of interest in energy resulting from high gasoline prices, the energy addiction analogy is all over the newspapers, television, and Internet.

Analogies are important. They help us make sense of a complex world. By framing issues in familiar ways, they tell us what is wrong and how we might go about fixing them. However, this is where we need to be careful. Because analogies shape how we think about problems, we need to be sure their suggested solutions will actually work.

At first glance, the energy-dependence-as-drug-addiction analogy makes sense.  It evokes a sense of crisis. It also implies irrational dependence. Just as drug addicts know the dangers of using yet feel unable to stop, we continue to pump gas into SUVs, overcool shopping malls, and leave the lights on, even though we know we shouldn’t.

The analogy breaks down, however, when we try to solve the problem. The solution to drug addiction is to kick drugs completely, but this won’t work for energy. Human life depends on it. Without a minimum amount of energy for heating, cooking, and growing food, we’d all be dead. Instead, we need an analogy that distinguishes between uses of energy that are essential and those that are wasteful.

A better analogy is that Americans are “energy obese.” It’s as if Americans are consuming the energy equivalent of an 8,000-calorie diet every day. Our energy bingeing is leading to all kinds of problems, such as high grocery bills (economic problems), less food for others (geopolitical tensions), and damaged bodies (environmental pollution). But, now that we are used to 8,000 calories a day, we have trouble imagining how to live with less.

The solution for an energy-obese nation is not going cold turkey: it’s starting a healthy and sustainable diet. What would this mean?

First, we need to get rid of the excessive energy we consume every day. No more energy junk food-—goodbye large SUVs, air-conditioned stores that leave their doors open and inefficient appliances. Just as a doctor would tell us to grab an apple in the afternoon instead of a donut, we need to take advantage of all the energy-saving activities we can, such as replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescents and turning down the thermostat in the wintertime. And we’ll need to exercise. We can replace some of our demand for fossil fuel with muscle power by biking to work, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and walking to the store. This may have the extra benefit of reducing both physical and energy love handles.

Learning to live without all these extra calories will not be easy. It may require the political equivalent of stomach stapling. We’ll need laws that encourage energy-efficient behaviors and align the price of fossil fuels with the costs of global warming and foreign wars. Strategies could include placing caps on carbon emissions, developing renewable energy resources and enhancing public transportation systems. Such measures would be difficult and expensive.  However, in the richest nation in the world, we have the resources to do this.

Second, we need to figure out a sustainable supply of energy that would provide people with the energy equivalent of a 2,000-calorie diet. As in nutrition, not all calories are alike. Right now, almost all our calories come from fossil fuels, which are the energy equivalents of trans fats. Only 7 percent of our energy comes from healthy and sustainable renewable energy sources. We need to change this ratio by planting and eating more energy vegetables (wind), whole grains (solar) and fresh fruit (hydropower). As with food, we should get as much of our energy from local sources as possible. We can do this by
increasing government support for research into emerging technologies, providing incentives for renewable energy entrepreneurs and making conscious decisions to live with less.

Although calling Americans “energy obese” doesn’t suggest the same sense of crisis as “energy addicted,” it better captures how we should treat the problem. We don’t need a detox program; we need a healthier relationship with energy consumption. A new energy diet is just what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Holiday from Sanity

We should call recent proposals for a “gas tax holiday” what they are: a holiday from sound thinking, responsible governance, and any tenable solution to our widespread energy problems. Or, as Thomas Friedman has recently written, it is just plain “dumb.”

It may not have been a great surprise when John McCain recommended that the government suspend its tax on gasoline (18.4 cents per gallon) for the summer driving season. Hillary Clinton’s recent decision to join him is much more deplorable, given her history of working with, rather than against, policy experts (those experts largely suggest the gains to individuals will be quite minimal). Now several states are joining in the discussion as well.

In explaining their support for this measure, various politicians claim to care about the negative consequences high gas prices have for many Americans (a cynic would note they likely care more about their poll numbers than regular people, but that is another matter). Their claim of caring for people is powerful politically, but we need to look at it more closely if we want to actually address the roots of suffering.

There are a lot of things we should care about. We should care that the increasing cost of gasoline is negatively impacting the lives of millions of Americans who need their cars to drive to work, drop children off at school, and run errands. For these people, the increasing price of gas impacts their ability to work, seek medical care, and support their families. Moreover, these impacts are often felt most acutely by the poorest members of society, who often have the longest commutes and lowest levels of savings.

We should care about other issues as well. We should care that our dependence on oil has led us into a disastrous war in Iraq. We should care that the transportation sector is one of the major contributors to global warming. We should care that Americans drive more than anyone else. We should care that America is addicted to oil and that these types of problems will only get worse unless we address this dependence.

In other words, we cannot separate caring about people from caring about solving the issues that are causing the problems. Our caring must extend beyond the short term. This can only be done by connecting relief efforts with long-range policies designed to alleviate the structural conditions that created the problems in the first place. Bottom line: if we are offering short-term relief, it had better include long-term answers.

Along this line, here are some alternative proposals that make a lot more sense:

First, if we are committed to a gas tax holiday, it should be linked with one or more of the following conditions: a) an increased tax on the purchase of vehicles getting less than 25 miles per gallon; b) every dollar saved by the gas tax holiday is matched by a dollar-for-dollar investment in renewable energy technologies; and/or c) a significant increase in the fuel economy standards for all classes of vehicles.

A second set of policy considerations would look at why Americans drive so much. One of the reasons is that real estate developers and corporations have been establishing living and working spaces that are increasingly far apart. To counter this trend, we should provide incentives for developers and companies to create houses and offices that are centrally located to one another and to public transportation hubs. By contrast, we should discourage suburban sprawl through measures that penalize such developments. Call this the “McMansion tax.”

Third, we can begin work to revitalize public transportation systems so that Americans have alternatives to driving. Given that it is extraordinarily unlikely the price of gas is ever going to return to its low levels of a decade ago, the economics of public transportation are looking better and better. However, these systems require significant public investment to develop the infrastructure that makes their smooth operations possible. We should begin these investments now.

None of these policies will solve our energy problems alone. However, they will go a lot further than the chicanery of a gas tax holiday. We should use the present crisis as motivation to solve our problems, not just wave a populist flag at them.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Nuclear Lesson

New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine just announced an ambitious new energy plan designed to reduce the state’s carbon dioxide emissions. Many are supportive of New Jersey’s efforts, in particular its goals to derive 20% of its power from renewable sources and to decrease overall consumption. However, one part of the plan has caused considerable consternation: the recommendation that New Jersey build a new nuclear plant.

The fact that nuclear power is being counted on to improve the health of the planet should give us pause. For several decades, environmentalists identified nuclear energy as one of earth's greatest dangers due to the handling and storing of radioactive waste and the possibility of plant meltdowns. In addition to its environmental risks, nuclear power has never been competitive economically. No nuclear power plant has been built in the United States since 1973, largely because public utilities have chosen to invest in cheaper options.

Even though nothing has been done to alleviate these environmental and economic concerns, nuclear energy is poised for a resurgence, as exemplified by New Jersey’s energy plan. The obvious explanation is global warming. Fears of a warming planet have reframed the environmental and economic worries of nuclear energy. The industry has been given new life because of the ability of nuclear energy to produce large quantities of electricity with comparably few greenhouse gas emissions (provisions in recent energy bills promising subsidies for nuclear power plants have helped as well).  

However, we should not lose sight of the fact that nuclear energy is only attractive because it is the lesser of several evils. This is not the same thing as being a good option. We need to ask ourselves how we got into a situation where our energy options are so limited that building an incredibly expensive and environmentally risky nuclear power plant makes sense.

How did we get here? Three sets of historical decisions have shaped our present position: heavy government subsidy of nuclear energy, a failure to make proactive decisions surrounding climate change, and a lack of investment in renewable energy technologies.

First and foremost, the only reason nuclear power can enter contemporary energy debates is that the industry has received tens of billions of dollars of investment from the U.S. government over the last sixty years. Much of this funding was political in nature: after dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. government was eager to show that the most destructive technology ever constructed could also help society. The idea of a nuclear “swords to ploughshares” program justified the investment of billions of dollars in nuclear energy programs to elite policymakers. Even though the results rarely matched the hype, the continued government support of nuclear power ultimately enabled the industry to become relatively well-developed, if not fully financially solvent. The critical point to keep in mind is that without huge quantities of government funding, nuclear power would not be an option today.

The second historical thread is the failure of the United States and other industrialized nations to proactively address global warming. By the 1970s, and certainly by the beginning of the 1990s, there was an emerging scientific consensus that the atmospheric effects of burning fossil fuels were leading to a warming of the planet. The United States has paid almost no heed to these warnings (some nations, such as Europe and Japan have taken more aggressive steps towards reducing emissions, although rhetoric has exceeded reality most of the time). The failure to begin taking proactive steps despite clear scientific evidence has exacerbated the present situation, forcing us to investigate all options for reducing greenhouse gases, even nuclear power.

Third, and related to the above point, one of the most effective interventions would have been to invest heavily in renewable energy technologies to lessen dependence on fossil fuels. The ability of the government to invest heavily in developing energy technologies is proven by the example of nuclear energy. If some of those billions of dollars over the past sixty years had been invested in developing solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, and other renewable technologies, these technologies would be much more commercially developed. As a result, we could be in a position to derive a much greater part of our energy requirements from renewable technologies. Such investments would likely have made a goal of achieving 20% of New Jersey’s energy from renewables seem as pathetic as Bush’s latest climate policy.

These past decisions have shaped today’s reality. Since we cannot go back and change the past, the best we can do is to learn from it. The nuclear lesson is that whatever we do today will structure the options available to our children, for better or for worse. If we choose to continue on our present course, our children will inherit a world of resource scarcity and a considerably warmer planet. Hopefully we can do better. If we invest heavily in renewable energy technologies that have minimal environmental risks (and not all renewable energy technologies are equal in this regard—see my post on the problems of ethanol, for example) we have a chance to give the next generation a legacy of solutions to accompany the challenges we will undoubtedly leave them as well.

The past dealt the present a bad hand for dealing with climate change. It’s up to us to take proactive steps to stack the deck in favor of the future.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Return of the King

King Coal ruled the nineteenth century.  Marx and Engels were on to something when they identified the dark and satanic mills of England as emblematic of a new era.  The ability of coal to provide heat, power steam engines, and forge iron enabled the rise of an industrial society that would forever change the world. 

Coal disappeared from the popular imagination during the twentieth century.  Oil and nuclear power took its place as both the automobile and the atom became symbols of a new world.  However, it is a mistake to regard coal as a relic of the past.  When historians look back at the twenty-first century, a major theme is likely to be the return of coal to its status as king of energy sources.

Of course, coal never went away in the twentieth century.  In absolute terms, its consumption steadily increased.  However, people have much less direct contact with coal these days, and as a result, its visibility has diminished.  The main reason is that most coal in industrialized nations is burnt in electric power plants far away from consumers.  It is easy to forget that coal provides over half the power used in electric devices like laptops, refrigerators, and television sets.

While coal has been a crucial part of the twentieth century, its importance is likely to increase during the twenty-first as a result of two related trends.  The first is the ratio of coal reserves relative to other hydrocarbons.  The second is China and India.  

The first major factor encouraging the rise of coal is supply.  Simply put, there is a lot more coal out there than anything else.  Estimates of global reserves vary from source to source, but are consistent in emphasizing that coal reserves exceed those for oil and natural gas.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that there are 164 years of coal remaining as opposed to 65 years for natural gas.  There is greater controversy in citing oil reserves, but virtually all cite a figure of less than 100 years at current rates of consumption.  Barring unprecedented gains in non-hydrocarbon resources, by the latter half of the twenty-first century, coal will once again be the most widely available and used energy source.

The second factor is China and India.  These countries have three important things in common: huge populations, booming economies, and large coal reserves.  The consequences of this are pretty straightforward.  China and India will consume massive quantities of energy in the twenty-first century, largely through burning coal.  As these nations begin to represent an increasing percentage of global energy use, it will cause a corresponding shift in the make-up of the world's energy mix towards coal.

The increasing use of coal will not be good for the environment.  Most coal in its natural state contains many more impurities, such as sulfur, than oil or natural gas.  Increasing our consumption of coal will mean more carbon dioxide and more particulates in the air.  More than just our mills may be dark and satanic.  

What should we do about this?  First, we need to recognize the trends so that we can act accordingly.  One approach is to invest in clean coal technology.  While "clean coal" may be an oxymoron, there is no doubt that technologies such as stack scrubbers have significantly lessened the environmental impacts of coal-burning power plants.  Whether it is carbon sequestration or other approaches to reducing the environmental impacts of coal burning, we should be investing in them now.  At the same time, we should increase our investments in renewable energy resources to lower the demand for coal.

Once these technologies are developed, it is important that developing nations like China and India get free access to them.  Global warming can only be addressed from an international perspective.  However, many of these technologies, at least initially, are likely to be expensive and beyond the reach of developing nations.  Industrialized nations like the United States must realize that much of their wealth has been derived by burning hydrocarbons and accept a disproportionate role in paying for solutions.

King Coal will return.  It's up to us to be prepared.