Two Sides of the Alternative Energy Coin

Two columns from the May 18 edition of NEWSWEEK neatly frame the “here-and-now” versus “the future of energy” dilemma of alternative energy development. Daniel Lyons argues in “TECHTONIC SHIFTS: Time For A Trade-In” that it may be time to phase out the first generation of gasoline-electric hybrid cars in favor of all electric vehicles or ‘extended range’ electrics. Robert J. Samuelson, on the other hand, makes the case in his “The Bias Against Oil and Gas” that an alternative energy reality is so far in the future that it is irrelevant to our energy policy decisions.

It’s tempting to say these postions represent the two faces of the same energy coin, but the coin analogy suggests there’s barely anything separating the two faces. In reality, there is galaxy of possibilities and trades-offs between these extremes. The real world, as always, is way more complicated than either of these positions would suggest – and way more subtle and nuanced that the press will typically report. Perhaps a loaf-of-bread analogy would work better – the opposite ends of the loaf are not very useful, and the good stuff is all in the middle.

An honest argument on energy policy would acknowledge that there are useful truths in Lyons’ rosy vision of an alternative energy future and in Samuelson’s no-nonsense world driven by fossil fuels – and it would ruefully acknowledge that both extremes tend to ignore the wisdom of compromise and incorporating the good ideas of the other. Here is a quick and dirty summary of some of the key points of each position …

On the positive side of alternative energy:
1. It’s better for the environment – not totally clean, of course, but cleaner than unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.
2. It could be better for our economy, and it certainly improves our safety and security by reducing our dependence on imports
3. The new technologies could spawn huge new spin-off industries
However …
4. Alternative energy sources are almost always more expensive and less convenient and efficient than their conventional energy counterparts. Getting people and industires to actually adopt them on an economy-altering scale will require some combination of big carrots and big sticks.
5. Reaching an alternative energy future will require huge investments in time, $$$ and effort. It will take patience and political will, and it ain’t going to happen in a couple of years or a Presidential term. The histories of new technologies caution that it’s likely to be a couple of DECADES before we’re effectively weaned off fossil fuels.

And for fossil fuels:
1. Oxidizing the carbon-hydrogen bonds by burning oil, natural gas and coal is an astoundingly efficient and economical sources of primary energy.
2. Our whole world is organized and optimized around fossil fuels – especially liquid fuels to power our transportation network of cars, truck, buses, trains and planes. Duplicating this distribution and user infrastructure for alterntive sources will take additional time, $$$ and effort.
3. Despite popular reports, there is still a tremendous untapped reserve of fossil fuel deposits in North America. Some of it is difficult and dirty to get to, but much of it is not.
But …
4. There’s a lot of coal, oil and gas still out there to be discovered, but it won’t last forever. Reserves we exploit in the futrue are likely to be substantially more expensive, difficult and dirty.
5. The cheapest and most accessible oil and gas come from regions of the world where we’re not very popular.

The bottom line, for me at least, is that Lyons and Samuelson are, at the same time, both totally right in what they advocate and grievously off the target of what we ought to be doing:
1. Our future – for the next 10-20 years – will contain a lot of fossil fuels and continue to be dominated by liquid fuels for transportation. Bio-fuels and synthetic fuels for gasified coal will only slowly augment petroleum sources.
2. We need the full menu of alternative energy sources – solar, wind, wides and waves, etc – but they must be commercially viable in their own right, not just because of the enthusiasm of the ‘feel good’ altruists or government subsidies.

For the alternative energy enthusiast, Lyons closes with a fairly dismal assessment. Successful growth of alternative energy schemes will require taxes on conventional energy high enough to shelter infant alternative energy ventures. “That” says San Francisco Mayor, Gavin Newsom, quoted in the Lyons piece, “requires someone to give up their political future. There’s nobility in that [but] I’m looking forward to someone else doing that.”


One Response to “Two Sides of the Alternative Energy Coin”

  1. Wow! Didn’t See that Coming « The Alternative Energy Page Says:

    […] and encourage non-fossil energy alternatives – wind, solar, bio-mass, etc, as well as nuclear. As I’ve argued before, the only practical route to a non-fossil energy future is through a prudent and responsible (and […]

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