This time of year we tend to look back on the past year, resolve to do better next year, or at least think about what the future will bring. In terms of energy supplies, we have in past years continued our reliance on highly subsidized fossils fuels, the use of which endangers the environment and contributes to our spiraling health care costs. Will we in the future resolve to be less wasteful? Will we resolve to do better as stewards of the planet, for our children’s sake?
The twentieth century will be looked upon as the heyday of fossil fuels, first coal, then oil and now increasingly natural gas. The availability of these fuels produced in North America is increasing which is good for the economy, but bad because the increase utilization of fossil fuels. This is bad for the environment and our health. There are two broad alternative futures;business as usual where we favor big solutions like increasing reliance on nuclear reactors and abundant coal reserves, or what Amory Lovins described as the “soft energy path”. In this alternate future energy will be supplied by sustainable, dispersed energy sources such as wind and solar.
The big solution is basically a supply side, large scale strategy which favors production to meet demand, rather than the management of demand to impact production. Nuclear power in one form or another is realistically the only long term solution in this pathway. Due to economy of scale issues, nuclear reactors are very large, when measured by energy output. And unlike the suggestions of the fifties, nuclear power is not and will never be “too cheap to meter.”
And of course there is the yet to be solved problem of high level nuclear waste. Because of these problems the industry is both highly regulated and highly subsidized. The nuclear industry of the future, if it has a future, will be regulated so that the consumer is protected somewhat from the economic and environmental vagaries of energy production, but that will result in a larger governmental role to oversee said industries. This is the classic big industry, big government system which has been the historical trend over several generations. And it has worked more or less in not only the energy industry specifically but the economy in general. OK, there is the problem with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, but that has also been the trend of late.
The soft energy path envisions power production to be greatly decentralized. When power is coming from wind turbines or solar panels economies of scale are not nearly as significant. Solar and wind will be done on a much smaller scale, as suggested by Kirkpatrick Sale in his book “Human Scale”. Power will be produced by individuals or local coops, with less need of big government oversight as the risks are considerably less. Production will be controlled by demand management through more emphasis on efficiency. In this strategy there is less need for big government, and less likelihood of extremes in wealth accumulation, at least in the energy sector.
So these are our possible energy futures as viewed through two extremes. I prefer the latter, but we will see what the future brings.