Summer/Fall 2008 Vol. 8 No. 2
Many Voices Speak Out on Energy Policy
Every time Americans go to the gas pumps these days, they receive a stark reminder that the nation is facing an energy crisis. Along with fuel prices that have topped $4 a gallon in many places, other troubling developments are spurring calls for change. Widespread concern about global warming is growing, and political instability in some oil-rich countries has renewed cries for U.S. energy independence.
But while there is a growing consensus that we have a problem, this is hardly the case when possible solutions are discussed. In an effort to ensure that future energy policy decisions are based on the best available scientific information, the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the National Research Council launched a comprehensive study to provide an authoritative analysis of the potential benefits and costs of current and future energy technologies.
As part of that effort, some of the best minds in energy technology and policy from the government, the private sector, and research institutions gathered at a two-day summit this spring to discuss America's energy future. The summit examined current energy trends both in the United States and abroad, as well as the potential benefits and drawbacks of several different traditional and innovative energy technologies.
Getting the Global Picture
Although the United States and many other countries already are feeling the effects of tightening oil supplies, demand keeps growing, noted several of the summit's speakers. By 2030, global energy use is expected to increase more than 50 percent, with more than half of that growth coming from developing nations. At the same time, oil supplies are not keeping pace with demand, said Reuben Jeffery III, the U.S. Department of State's undersecretary for economic, energy, and agricultural affairs. "The math is very simple. Between 2001 and 2006, the [global] petroleum supply has grown at about 8.9 percent per annum, while demand has increased 9.6 percent."
Continued economic growth in large developing nations such as China and India will also increase their dependence on oil, coal, and other fossil fuels at a time when the need for reducing carbon emissions has become critical, noted Kelly Simms Gallagher, director of energy technology innovation policy at the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. As a result, the United States will have to not only reduce its own considerable carbon emissions, but also help countries like China reduce theirs.
That could prove to be a critical priority, said Ged Davis, co-president of global energy assessment at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Based on the most likely emissions scenarios calculated recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, temperatures could climb as much as 5 or 6 degrees Celsius in the decades ahead if China and India continue to burn fossil fuels at their current rates. Such a dramatic increase could lead to massive extinctions, rising sea levels, and serious health problems.
Examining the Options
These dire forecasts for the future do have a positive effect: They increase the political will to achieve greater energy efficiency and to develop affordable, clean alternative energies, noted many of the speakers. "Perhaps as never before, the American people are calling for action, and taking action themselves," said Samuel Bodman, U.S. energy secretary. He noted DOE's commitment to expanding basic research and development, which could lead to major breakthroughs in wind and solar power, biofuels, and nuclear energy. And according to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, two major energy laws passed by Congress recently will cut energy consumption through such measures as tougher fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, more biofuel use, and better funding for technology research and development.
Much more needs to be done, however, to decrease carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency, the speakers acknowledged. Toward that end, the summit included an in-depth examination of several traditional and alternative energy sources, such as coal, nuclear power, solar power, and biofuels, and their pluses and minuses. In the near term, improving efficiency of existing technologies could make a significant difference, several speakers said.
Long-term solutions are going to require innovative approaches by both the government and the private sector. For example, the Internet giant Google is working on developing renewable energy and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Dan Reicher, Google's director of climate and energy initiatives, noted that while reducing carbon outputs and increasing energy security are major challenges, they also present tremendous business opportunities.
Developing sound energy policies in the United States and abroad to address these urgent issues will be critical in the decades ahead. Speakers at the summit were mostly optimistic that real gains will be made in the future. "We have what I believe to be one of the most important elements of a successful strategy: national imperative to act," said Bodman. -- Molly Galvin