Global energy crisis threatens, scientist says
CHICAGO (April 17, 1997) — An impending global energy crisis with potentially massive impact on American industry and jobs can be avoided if America strives for a portfolio of energy systems, a distinguished scientist said here today.
In advocating an end to name-calling between energy advocates and environmentalists, Alan Schriesheim said, “We cannot set effective energy policy in an environmental vacuum, nor can we set effective environmental policy in an energy vacuum.”
Schriesheim, director emeritus at Argonne National Laboratory, spoke at a gathering sponsored by the Chicago Academy of Sciences at the University Club of Chicago.
Energy demand will soar worldwide over the next 20 years, he said.
“What do you think might happen,” he asked the audience, “to the world’s energy needs and environmental concerns if we added a new United States to the planet every three years for the next 20 years? This is not an academic question. The world population today is growing at exactly that rate, and it is projected to continue growing at that rate through 2020.”
The bulk of that population growth will come in the poorer countries, Schriesheim said, “places where talk of energy policy comes second to talk of food and shelter and survival; places where, if the only affordable fuel is growing in the rain forest, you will take that fuel today without a moment’s thought of the consequences tomorrow.”
The Argonne scientist’s talk was titled “What Every High School Graduate Should Know About Energy,” and was part of the Chicago Academy of Sciences lecture series “Science Literacy for the 21st Century: What Should Every High School Graduate Know?”
Schriesheim told the audience that world population growth of more than 86 million people per year is “the equivalent of adding two cities the size of Chicago to the planet each month.”
“So not only will all the Earth’s current population demand more energy in the years ahead,” he said, “those billions of new people are going to want their share too.”
Schriesheim chided energy executives who dismiss environmental concerns, and environmentalists who dismiss the energy production potential of fossil fuels, flowing water, and uranium in favor of so-called “renewable” energy sources such as solar energy. He said that for the next several generations renewables — such as solar, wind, and farm-grown energy crops — are expected to provide only 2 to 4 percent of global energy supplies.
Those who argue that these largely undeveloped sources can replace traditional fuels, Schriesheim said, “seem to believe that a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand.”
Everyone agrees, he said, that the perfect fuel would be renewable, non-fossil, environmentally clean, and would have reliable conversion, storage and delivery methods already developed.
“Unfortunately, no such fuel yet exists,” he said. “No matter how hard we might wish it to be otherwise, there is an environmental price to pay with every fuel choice. No one fuel and no single technology will be the best environmentally in all cases, so choices must be made if we are to meet energy needs at the lowest possible environmental cost. And choices only are possible with a portfolio of options.”
Both energy advocates and environmentalists must acknowledge each other’s legitimate concerns if the nation and world are to meet exploding energy demand without hardships, he said.
“The alternative, one we’ve been practicing for far too long, is to stand still, regret the past, and find ever-increasing objections to any course for the future,” he said. “Our discussions today are marked more by acrimony and stagnation than they are by progress and understanding.
“If we continue this negativism,” Schriesheim said, “we will find ourselves halfway through the 21st Century with exactly the same energy picture we have today: We will still be burning fossil fuels, we will still be depleting those finite resources, we will still be spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and we will still be arguing.”
A noted chemist who holds 22 patents and is scheduled to speak to a world technology conference next month in Istanbul, Turkey, Schriesheim also took aim at the notion that expanding energy needs are for trivial purposes.
“In talking about increasing energy demand,” he said, “we are not talking about energy to power a third family TV or an electric toothbrush. According to one estimate, as many as 2.4 billion people — that’s a quarter of the projected world population — will live in water-scarce countries by 2050. Africa and parts of western Asia appear particularly vulnerable. Also, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the number of undernourished people could rise from 175 million to some 300 million by 2010.”
“We must have energy available to desalinate water and to grow and ship food to those people,” he said, “or they will die of thirst or hunger. In a sense then, ensuring an adequate energy supply is a matter of life and death.”
Jon Miller, vice president of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, said the lecture series is intended to help today’s society ensure that “we and our children are prepared for tomorrow.”
The series began last November and is organized by the academy’s International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy, which Miller said is the leading research organization in the world studying public understanding of science and technology.
Miller said the project’s goal is to “bring together community, regional, and national leaders to think about and focus on one of the critical issues of our time. Today’s technologically advanced society demands a high level of scientific understanding.
“In the future,” he said, “a scientifically literate population will be even more important.”
CNN) — As rolling blackouts swept through parts of California in March, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham warned the country that it faces its “most serious shortage” since the 1970s.
Soaring utility rates have been the subject of much debate in California as the wholesale prices of electricity have skyrocketed, jumping from an average of $30 per megawatt hour last year to $330 in January.
The Bush administration, warning the crises will spread far beyond California this summer, is scheduled to unveil its long-term energy policy in April or May.
Meanwhile, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has ordered some wholesalers to justify $124 million in charges sold to California utilities in January and February or pay refunds. The commission is asking for refunds whenever prices rose above $273 per megawatt hour in January and $430 per megawatt hour in February. The suppliers defended the increases, blaming them on a shortage of power and uncertain finances of the state’s two major utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Edison International.
Responding to consumer outrage, the California Senate has formed a special committee, scheduled to meet in early April, to investigate soaring prices. The committee’s chairman, state Sen. Joe Dunn, recently told the Los Angeles Times that while demand in California has increased 4 percent over the last year, wholesale prices have jumped 266 percent. At the same time, Dunn said, the profits of some wholesale suppliers have soared an average of 508 percent.
The state’s lawmakers and energy executives are blaming each other for the energy crisis.
“I think the people that insisted that we get into deregulation in 1996 made a huge miscalculation,” California Gov. Gray Davis told CNN. “They did not anticipate the huge economic recovery California experienced and the needs of the tech companies here in California. Secondly, there was no effort to build new plants to meet the demand.”
But critics of Davis counter that while his Republican predecessor Pete Wilson signed the deregulation bill, Davis, a Democrat, failed to act when early power shortages signaled a looming crisis.
California was the first state to deregulate its electricity market in 1996. The move was supposed to lower the bills of consumers by preventing most utilities from passing rising costs on to their customers until at least March 2002.
Under deregulation, the state’s investor-owned utilities sold most of their power generating plants. Now they must buy back that power at market prices.
Meanwhile, the neighboring states where California has been buying surplus electricity grew rapidly, boosting the price of wholesale energy.
PG&E and Edison say that this year’s higher natural gas prices, dry weather conditions in the Pacific Northwest and an unusual number of plant maintenance outages have also contributed to spikes in wholesale energy prices. They claim that if they keep shelling out more money to buy electric power — and are prevented from passing on that cost to consumers — they will go belly up.
Others have argued that there is no energy shortage in California, but an energy cartel of companies that is manipulating the supply to raise prices and profits.
The power industry in California is now the target of six investigations by state and federal agencies.
“The people of this state are being taken to the cleaners and billions of dollars are going to out-of-state power generators,” said state Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco).
Gary Ackerman, executive director of the Western Power Trading Forum, representing buyers and suppliers of electricity, countered: “We have been investigated up and down and sideways, and after all these months, nobody has found any evidence that there is any price manipulating or any wrongdoing on the part of the power generators here in California or in the Western region.”
California’s struggle to come up with a long-term solution to its energy crisis has nationwide implications. Increased use of computers and other appliances and the lack of adequate new power plants are the norm across the country.
The 25 other states that are moving toward deregulation are watching the developments in California closely.
The Associated Press and CNN Correspondent Charles Feldman contributed to this report.
What Energy Crisis?
It is difficult to deny the fact that humans are using more and more energy every year. And no one is questioning if we will ever run out of fossil fuels, but when we will run out of those fuels. At the current rate of energy consumption (which by even conservative estimates is expected to increase by 50% around 2010), those non-renewable sources of energy such as oil, natural gas, and coal are quickly going to be depleted. Such fuels are also harmful to the environment when burned to create energy and harm the entire planet when used. Suggestions are made for using such renewable resources for fuel as wood (which is used extensively in homes throughout the Northeast United States), but even a fuel that is renewable, like wood, faces limitations on use. There simply isn’t enough wood to provide for the energy demands of the United States, much less any other developed or developing nation.
One of the proposed solutions to this problem has been using Nuclear power, specifically fission power plants. Unfortunately fission plants have many negative qualities. They are potentially dangerous in the event that a meltdown ever occurs because their reactions are not as controllable as fusion. They also produce masses of radioactive waste that is harmful to the environment and takes thousands of years to dissolve. Obviously fission is not an adequate option.
Solar and Hydroelectric Solutions
Many people today advocate using Solar and Hydroelectric sources for energy production. These methods, too, have their faults. There simply aren’t enough rivers to provide for an adequate supply of power from Hydro plants. Damming up rivers for the plants is also destructive to the natural ecosystems of the area. Solar power is not much better in that respect. In order to provide the energy necessary to sustain the United States miles and miles of solar panels would need to be developed and deployed. This has a small effect on the environment. The greatest problem with Solar power, however, is in its inefficiency. Of the energy reaching the earth from the sun, only about 1.5-3% reaches the surface, less on rainy days. A proposed method of deploying solar panels to capture a greater percentage of the sun’s rays is orbital stations, but there is still a question of the safety involved in using powerful microwave beams to transfer the energy to the Earth.
The Promise of Fusion
Fusion is generally regarded by scientists and politicians as an excellent hope for our energy future. The fuels used in the proposed commercial reactors are abundant on Earth and in the universe. There is some question regarding the time frame for the first commercial fusion reactors, but they will revolutionize the planet when they arrive.
This is a diagram depicting the possibilities for using fusion power to produce electricity. The amount of energy produced by the fusion of hydrogen isotopes is shown by the left-hand blue arrow and the energy produced by fission is depicted by the right-hand blue arrow. You can see that fusion produces much more energy per reaction than fission.
Fusion is not a benevolent gift from the gods, however. In tritium-deuterium reactions, which are easier to sustain because of their lower temperatures, there are small amounts of radioactive byproducts in the form of neutrons. Energy production facilities which employ fusion will need to utilize substances that negate the small amounts of radioactivity to ensure harmless operation.