Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Energy Two-Step

A recent article on hydrogen cars in MIT's Technology Review got me thinking about the big challenges we face in energy: not only must we reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of our present energy systems, but we must also begin to plan for an energy economy that relies much less on petroleum products. To most people, that probably sounds like one problem, but I believe it is really two, with potentially very different solutions. The reason for that is that the replacements for oil's primary uses in transportation are simply not ready for prime time. That means we're looking at a two-stage transition in energy systems, with work on both proceeding simultaneously. This includes some options that will require great patience, such as hydrogen. We need to be prepared to fund both near-term and long-term efforts, without worrying that work on one competes with the other.

Everything that Technology Review says about BMW's hydrogen-powered 7-series sedan is accurate today, and not just because I've been saying it here going back to 2004. Producing a hydrogen car now, as the solution to our present energy and climate change problems, will not improve matters. Not only is burning H2 in an internal combustion engine inherently just about the least efficient thing you can do with the energy that went into making the H2, as Mr. Talbot rightly points out, but the entire H2 infrastructure of production, storage and distribution is at least a decade away, maybe two or three.

If we're serious about tackling climate change any time soon, as the evidence suggests we must, then we need options that are available now. Even hybrid cars, for all their efficiency benefits, are at least one full "implementation lag" (about 15 years) away from achieving their maximum impact. We need more efficient mass-market cars starting right away, together with changes in consumer behavior, as I suggested last week. CAFE standards and tax credits can help with the former, but I don't know how to promote the latter other than by increasing the price of petroleum products, either through new taxes or the application of a cap-and-trade system for its greenhouse gas emissions.

But all of that still only buys us the time towards making more radical changes in the long haul. That's because even if we can reverse our steady upward trend in oil consumption, the billions in the developing world are on a big energy consumption uptrend from near zero per capita. Together, we will be driving inexorably toward the point at which oil production, conventional and unconventional together, won't be able to keep up with demand. Whether oil reaches a peak or an "undulating plateau" only matters in determining the full magnitude of the problem that's waiting for us, sometime between now and mid-century.

Meeting that challenge will require more than just becoming smarter about how we use oil. We will need to develop future vehicles that don't burn gasoline, diesel, or even biofuels. From what we can see today, that will come down to a race between hydrogen fuel cells and batteries, powering an all-electric vehicle. Hybrids and plug-in hybrids are the bridge to this, and the critical foundation is a vast new capacity for low-greenhouse-gas electricity or hydrogen. These energy carriers would be generated by a mix of renewable energy from wind and solar, coal with carbon sequestration, and advanced nuclear power. Reaching that point will require dramatic performance and cost improvements for most of these technologies. Only then will we be able to begin the transition from away from oil entirely, for most of its current uses.

Like a lot of baby boomers, I grew up thinking we'd have flying cars by now. It's natural to overestimate the potential for prompt change, while underestimating the cumulative effects of long-term trends and new technologies. The energy and transportation systems of 2020 are already taking shape, with a growing emphasis on efficiency. But the world of 2050 is very much up for grabs, and that's good, because from everything we can tell, we will need it to look very different.

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