The future of energy: What will it be, and where will it come from?

Ultimately, everything is ideological, and everything becomes emotional. Logic is strictly in the eye of the beholder.

Ultimately, everything is ideological, and everything becomes emotional. Logic is strictly in the eye of the beholder.

The debate for the United States Energy Plan has carried on for almost 30 years, ever since the Arab oil embargo and the subsequent energy crisis, terms that have become standard fixtures in the lexicon.

The last several months have not been different, although the energy issue, like the business it describes, is a margin enterprise. A half of one percent of over- or under-supply, real or imagined, may gyrate the price of oil or gas by 50% or more. The effect on the world economies can be nothing short of devastating. Similarly, huge events such as the Sept. 11 attacks on the US, the Middle East crisis, or the strife in Venezuela may tilt the public, perhaps by margins of 2% to 3% in one way or another.

Yet, energy supply is neither a marginal issue, nor can it be allowed to be an expression of innate ideologies.

Here are just three points: Energy supply is essential for any economy, certainly for one such as the United States. While a rich country uses a lot of energy, the corollary is true too: Energy generates wealth. Energy shortages, if they ever come to pass, will wreak havoc and economic devastation.

There is a very strong correlation between a nation's wealth and its per capita energy consumption. However, energy use has become far more efficient in a process that spanned a century (even in the last 30 years, energy use per dollar of the gross domestic product has been halved).

Yet, the idea that conservation can have a huge impact on energy demand, while romantic, is unrealistic and even dangerous. The reason is simple. Conservation, which has never had much of an impact, always addresses the old, while our society constantly finds new reasons to consume energy. Abandoning all sport utility vehicles, which are far more efficient than their predecessors, and replacing them with Volkswagen Beetles would save 1% of energy, at maximum. Computers and the Internet may now already account for 5% of all energy demand.

The United States does not "waste" energy. No enterprise could survive wastefulness in this era of pronounced efficiencies. When people say that energy consumption should be reduced, my retort is simply, "What would you like the United States to be, Mexico, India, or Bangladesh?"

The type of energy sources also evolved and continues to evolve dramatically. The source moved from wood, which in 1800 provided 95% of all energy, to coal, which fueled the industrial revolution, to oil, unquestionably the fuel of the 20th Century and, now to natural gas. The de-carbonization of fuels is a historical imperative that has little to do with wild-eyed ideologues. This transition is dictated by cleaner, more efficient fuels and also by the continuous drive toward smaller and more refined engines, instruments, and gadgets. Eventually it will lead to hydrogen, no doubt in my mind about it.

The multi-trillion-dollar question, which is really what the entire issue boils down to, is when is this "eventually" going to happen?

Certainly not over the next 50 years, and when it does occur, it will bring with it social and economic changes that no one today can envision. The technological evolutions will be something to behold.

It is one thing when people, because of ideological, religious, or even moral grounds, take an explicit or even implicit position that the lifestyle we have and the society we created can be sacrificed because of lack of energy. Such notions are certain to create wide disagree-ments and even bemusement. But it is a legitimate expression of one's psyche. Many hate the petroleum industry with its capitalist present and imperialist past. Others like the "natural" way. Yet, while sunshine is free, solar energy, which is the mother of all energies, is so diffuse in real time that it becomes very expensive.

It is another matter for those who ought to know better, such as major journalists and national politicians, to pretend that our lifestyles can be maintained by solar energy, or that hydrogen will be the fuel of the near future, without explaining where it will come from. For example, during the past two years both Time and Newsweek ran major stories on energy, touting hydrogen fuel cells, but the arrow of the hydrogen stream had no origin. Surely, this could not be water, certainly not from what we know today and with the bad rap that nuclear energy has been getting by the same groups. The energy required to separate hydrogen from water is more than the energy that can be produced by burning that hydrogen. The physics and thermodynamics of this cannot be circumvented by any technology.

Here is a potential national tragedy. For national leaders to talk about energy sources that are either physically impossible or 50 years removed into the future, ignoring the needs of today and tomorrow, is not just unacceptable, it is plainly irresponsible.

Michael Economides
University of Houston

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