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O is for Oil

Page 3 of 3 -- Our energy problems are much larger than advertised.

To the extent that Americans even acknowledge an energy crisis, most of us see it in terms of the price of gasoline or heating fuel. These are only the tip of the iceberg. Worldwide, demand for energy of all kinds -- oil, but also electricity -- is stretching our capacity to produce it, and this dynamic shows little sign of letting up. World population will nearly double by mid-century. Yet since most of that growth will come in developing nations, world energy demand will actually rise geometrically, because many of these newcomers will need to double, triple, or even quadruple their current per capita energy consumption simply to reach a decent living standard.

All told, the world will need about four times the energy "services" we use today, which is almost impossible to imagine without using fossil fuels. And that's the good news. The bad news is that, if we're to have any hope of slowing climate change, by 2050 we must be generating only one-quarter of the CO2 that we emit today -- a reduction that may be all but impossible if we're still using fossil fuels, or at least using them in the way we do today.

No single magic bullet will solve our energy crisis.

Too many Americans believe that the only reason we're not using cleaner alternatives, like wind or hydrogen, is that energy companies don't want us to. This is the populist version of energy illiteracy. Yes, energy companies will fight hard to guard their investment in the status quo. But it's also true that most energy alternatives can't yet compete with fossil fuels.

The hydrogen economy looks good on paper. But fuel cells are still hugely expensive and unreliable -- and we'd still need a way to make the hydrogen, which, unlike oil, isn't just waiting underground. Sure, we can refine hydrogen from natural gas, but then we need a steady supply of natural gas. Hydrogen can be refined from water, but that process requires huge inputs of electricity.

This no-free-lunch rule applies to all energy alternatives. For example, while ethanol brewed from cost-effective crops can replace gasoline in the short-term, it still releases CO2. Solar and wind power are emission-free, but face their own downsides. One is power density. While a chunk of coal packs lots of energy into a small volume, wind and solar are rather dispersed. Thus, where a coal-fired power plant capable of powering a small city takes up only a few hundred acres, a wind-farm of the same capacity would require hundreds of square miles. Ditto for solar.

There is no substitute for conservation.

New energy technologies will continue to get cheaper and more convenient. (Thin film solar cells, which can be applied to windows and roofs, are a particularly exciting prospect.) But to delay changing our energy consumption now in the hopes of some killer app tomorrow is sheer folly. In the first place, we have no idea how long we'll have to wait. Second, we can almost guarantee that whatever the next energy technology is, it won't have the power density of coal or oil -- and thus won't be able to simply duplicate what coal or oil are doing today. In other words, as we prepare for the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels, we need to begin dramatically reducing the amount of energy we use -- ideally, by finding ways do what we do today but with less energy.

. . .

Which brings us back to cars. By 2020, we may indeed have a reliable, cost-competitive hydrogen fuel cell that uses energy twice as efficiently as a gasoline engine. But that efficiency gain would be largely negated if we're using that fuel cell to pull a five-ton SUV. Instead, by 2020, we'll need to be building lighter, more efficient cars that only need a third to a quarter of the energy required today. True, it isn't just cars. We'll also need to cut energy demand in offices, factories, and, yes, homes. But despite what you might hear from the EPA, the car is probably the best place to start, because it offers a way not only to quickly cut emissions, but to begin reducing our demand for oil.The EPA knows this, of course. And perhaps, in a few years, the average American will, too.

Paul Roberts is a journalist living in Washington State. His book "The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World" was published in May by Houghton Mifflin.  

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