Monday, January 19, 2009

Tempering Optimism with Patience

We've all heard the President-elect mention the need for patience in confronting our economic problems, echoed by countless commentators elaborating on the scale of the challenge involved. If I could offer him one piece of advice on Inauguration Day, it would be to ask the American public for the same degree of patience in transforming our energy economy. It took a century to evolve into its present shape, and its major hardware has lifetimes ranging from ten to sixty years. Despite the great progress and truly impressive growth of alternative energy over the last few years, displacing our reliance on conventional energy is not the task of a few months or years, no matter how much of the planned stimulus package is ultimately devoted to making a down payment on this transformation.

Along with that advice, I would point out two related facts to our new President. First, while doubling our renewable energy production in three years is an appropriately bold initial goal, it would be next to impossible if it included the hydropower dams that make up the largest current component of our renewable energy supplies. Wind and solar power have been growing at rates that should make it quite feasible to deliver a further doubling of their output in three years, if the new administration can find smart ways to restore the flow of financing that is so crucial for these projects. Yet wind, solar and geothermal power still accounted for less than 1.5% of the electricity generated in the US for the first nine months of 2008, while hydro provided 6.7%. Since I don't hear anyone calling for a slew of big, new hydroelectric dams--the trend seems rather in the opposite direction--we would need to double wind, solar and geothermal roughly five successive times to equal the 1.5 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity generated from coal in the same period. Efficiency and conservation might conceivably reduce the required number of doublings to four; however, each doubling will get progressively harder, as wind and solar grow out of the niches within which their cyclical and intermittent output has been relatively manageable.

The other fact concerns oil and the fuels we derive from it. President Obama might consider asking Dr. Chu a few questions on the subject of why hydrocarbon fuels have been so successful for the last hundred years. The answers have at least as much to do with chemistry and physics as they do with economics and domestic and geopolitics. Each gallon of gasoline delivers 115,000 BTUs, the equivalent of 33.7 kWh. It takes 1.5 gallons of ethanol or roughly 740 pounds of lithium ion batteries to deliver the same amount of energy to a car. The only reason it is even possible to conceive of an electric vehicle with comparable range to a gasoline-powered car is that current internal combustion engines waste about 80% of the energy in gasoline, while electric motors are more than 90% efficient. Petroleum products constitute a remarkable energy source and storage system, albeit a finite one, and replacing both attributes of oil at once will be exceedingly difficult. If we weren't so concerned about the energy security and environmental consequences of their use, it would be hard to justify such an uphill battle at all.

Attaining our energy goals will require healthy doses of both optimism and patience: optimism to remind us that none of the obstacles along the way looks insurmountable in the long run, and patience because those obstacles will not be conquered in four years or likely even eight. I still subscribe to the old notion that "a goal without a plan is just a wish." We need tangible plans to manage the transition from the old energy to the new, and to manage our expectations along the way. That's the best recipe I can offer for avoiding disappointing voters and consumers, when the promised energy transformation isn't complete by the end of President Obama's first term in office.

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