From Peak Energy to the Promise of Obama

In a new Nature article, Peak energy: promise or peril?, author Kurt Kleiner raises the specter of fossil fuel supplies dwindling far faster than previously thought.  He explores the view of many experts who question whether there will be enough coal, oil and natural gas to meet world demand. 

On the one hand, declining fossil fuels may spell relief for our warming climate.  Then again, those benefits could be cancelled out if, for instance, we were to replace petroleum to fuel our gas tanks with unconventional high carbon alternatives like coal.  As Kleiner notes:  

"What may be most important for the global climate, however, is what replaces conventional energy sources as they run out.  Running out of oil, for example, could be climatically disastrous if it becomes cost-effective to replace it with a coal-based liquid fuel for transportation while coal reserves are still plentiful. Speaking at the American Geophysical Union's December meeting, atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira reported that in the mid-term, replacing oil with coal-based liquid fuel would raise global temperatures by 2 °C above pre-industrial levels by 2042 instead of 2045.  If that oil was replaced by renewable energy, the 2 °C rise would be pushed back by 11 years to 2056, says Caldeira, who is based at the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC.  And in the long run, replacing oil with coal could raise temperatures by 20 per cent."

Let's face it, fueling our cars and trucks with liquid coal is ludicrous for a lot of reasons. Aside from worsening global warming, my colleague Andy Stevenson offers excellent analysis to show that there's simply not enough coal in the U.S. to even sustain a liquid coal industry. Andy's core point:

"What the coal industry knows but isn't telling you is that recent work done on our economic coal reserves points to a far shorter time span. In fact, when US coal reserves are adjusted to account for rising coal production rates, financing costs, coal quality, transportation costs, and other environmental and economic considerations the 250 years of reliable "cheap" coal power statistic quickly falls on its face. In fact, according to a National Academy of Sciences report from 2007, 'it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted assertion that there is a sufficient supply of coal for the next 250 years.' The report concludes that after factoring in the additional inputs described above, there is probably only sufficient economic reserves of coal left to meet the nation's energy needs for the next 100 years at current consumption rates."

UPDATE: I was remiss in not mentioning a new publication, A Roadmap for a Secure, Low-Carbon Energy Economy, co-published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and World Resources Institute. It argues from a security perspective why unconventional dirty fuels are not a viable alternative to fossil fuels. To wit:

"High-carbon unconventional forms of energy are not viable replacements. The Western Hemisphere, for instance, is rich in unconventional fuels such as oil sands, oil shale, and extra-heavy oil deposits, as well as coal, which can be used to make liquid fuels. From an energy security point of view, the presence of these unconventional reserves adds some comfort for the U.S. But these supplies will be costly to develop, and present sizeable environmental challenges, including significantly higher carbon dioxide emissions relative to conventional fossil fuels."

(p. 13) And this additional nugget that nicely puts another nail in the coffin:

"On the technology and fuels sides, there are clear pitfalls to avoid. In particular, the world must steer clear of pathways that move to unconventional liquid fuels (e.g., oil sands, coal-to-liquids, and corn-based ethanol), which while often touted as replacements for oil, do not offer the promise of long-term security and low emissions. Furthermore, while the new administration must recognize the need for near-term affordable and reliable transportation services, it should not let quick fixes for the current system (like increasing oil supply) delay investment in a more secure, low-carbon transportation system."

(p. 23)

Obama Extols Clean Energy

So, if it makes no sense to replace conventional fossil fuels with unconventional dirty fuels, then how do we satisfy our energy needs?  Well, fortunately, President Obama gets that the time is now to transition to a new clean energy economy that will slash dependence on foreign oil, combat climate change and ignite the next great domestic job boom.  As the president said last night in his address to the nation: "We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century." 

This is not just Obama's vision but it's also a top priority of his administration.  To accomplish the kind of change required to repower and refuel our nation's energy system will require more than innovation and investment.   Moving away from dirty, dangerous fossil fuels means overcoming the fundamental fear ingrained in so many that there really is no viable alternative. 

Grist's David Roberts pegs this "loss aversion" as the key challenge in the debate over the future of coal power:

"If the American people can be convinced an alternative is possible, they will not accept dirty, unhealthy energy, any more than they accept tainted water or cars without seat belts.  But the fear of letting go of the devil they know, the fear of jumping into the unknown, is incredibly potent...Those looking to dethrone coal in the public imagination would do well to focus most of their firepower not on coal itself but on establishing the credibility and reliability of the renewables/efficiency alternative. It can't be cutting edge and whizbang forever. It's got to be safe for soccer moms in suburban Atlanta."

Roberts is absolutely right that in order to make renewables real to people, we must rapidly ramp up the technology so it can replace dirty power. Fortunately, the president's commitment to a clean energy future can be met today with proven technologies. For example, a company called First Solar, Inc. has announced a breakthrough in the solar industry's ability to provide truly sustainable and affordable energy solutions as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Specifically, First Solar has reduced its manufacturing cost for solar modules to 98 cents per watt -- breaking the $1 per watt price barrier. Company officials credited Germany for making this major milestone possible through forward-looking government programs supporting solar electricity. After eight years of climate change denial and delay, we can now look forward to our own government's investment in a clean energy economy. Last night President Obama pledged to invest $15 billion a year to develop renewable energy technologies like solar power, saying:

"To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately mnake clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America."

Never in my lifetime has America been primed politically to pivot to a clean energy path, powered by renewable sources that don't imperil our planet.  That welcome change is finally here.