Dr. Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Department of Energy (DOE), started a Facebook page to open a new avenue for public input on energy topics. On his “Discussions” page, I started a discussion topic titled: “DOE’s fundamental responsibilities.” Here is what I wrote.
DOE’s fundamental responsibility is to assure that America has sufficient and affordable energy supplies. As the era of easy energy (oil, coal, and natural gas) ends in the coming decades, DOE’s primary mission at this time should be to define and implement a sustainable energy transition strategy that will undertake building such new, industrial-scale sustainable energy sources as are needed to avoid U.S. energy scarcity and the real potential of energy scarcity in the decades ahead.
What DOE should now do:
1. Prepare, in short order, a preliminary forecast of U.S. energy needs and easy energy supplies, both domestic and imported, through the end of the century to identify to what extent new sustainable energy sources must be brought into operation and by when. This forecast should deal realistically with the rising U.S. population and U.S. per capita energy needs through the end of the century.
2. Assess the realistic potential of conventional nuclear energy and terrestrial renewables—hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, ground solar electric, and land biomass—to fill shortfalls in dispatchable electrical power generation capacity and annual fuels production that will develop as easy energy supplies, both domestic and imported, diminish in the coming decades.
3. Identify the needed additional sustainable energy sources, capable of industrial-scale production, that are now ready for commercial engineering development and should be pursued to ensure that U.S. energy supply shortages or scarcity do not occur.
Until DOE has completed these three actions, it is not known if it is establishing the U.S. energy policies that are needed to ensure sufficient and affordable U.S. energy supplies in the coming decades. This, not climate change, remains DOE’s primary responsibility.
In collecting information for my white paper, “The End of Easy Energy and What to Do About It,” the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) was a primary data source. When I started to conduct my assessment of the future energy supply situation that led, eventually, to the paper, I was surprised that long-range energy forecasting to the end of the century was not a part of the EIA’s standard projections. Their forecasting went out only about 20 years, currently to about 2030. This raised a big red flag. Why such a short-term focus? What are the implications of this?
My energy assessment led me to the conclusion that, as the title infers, we are at the end of the era of easy energy—conventional oil, coal, and natural gas. Reaching this conclusion was the result of the fairly straightforward collection of per capita energy use statistics, population growth projections, and official estimates of U.S. and world proved energy reserves and additional potentially recoverable resources. Rapid world per capita energy increases, consistent with our western style of living, can only be expected to dramatically increase the needed world energy production capacity. Simply put, the addition of 5-6 billion modern energy consumers by 2100 will lead to a needed 3.5X increase in needed world energy production capacity. At this rate of growth, world easy energy resources will become exhausted before 2100. I did not see this mentioned as a possibility in any of the EIA publications I reviewed. (Hopefully, I just missed it.)
Joel Barker is one of my favorite authors. A futurist, he has written on the concept of paradigms. A paradigm, using my words, is a psychological framework for living and decision making. The paradigm provides us a set of rules and we use the rules to decide what actions to take or not take to comfortably live. Eventually, the rules will fail to successfully guide our living choices. Problems without apparent solutions will accumulate and paradigm “shifters”—to follow Barker’s line of reasoning—will experiment to identify a new set of rules—a new paradigm—by which we will then come to live. This happens all of the time.
Easy energy has been western civilization’s successful paradigm for nearly 16 decades, since the 1860’s. Many experts believe that we are reaching the end of increasing conventional oil production—peak oil—and the peaks in coal and natural gas production will follow in the coming decades. What is coming about is that nearly 5 billion people are trying to emulate the success of the U.S. in dramatically raising their standard of living by increasing their per capita energy supplies. The difference is that the U.S. (and Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, etc.) did this as conventional oil production was still growing. The world is now trying to do this on the downhill side of the conventional oil production curve—after the peak is reached. This will increase demand for coal and natural gas to fill the shortfalls in oil with new oil replacements. This will lead to the earlier exhaustion of coal and natural gas resources, leading to shortages and, then, scarcity of easy energy worldwide. When this happens, as emphasized in the white paper, the world and the U.S. will be living on whatever sustainable energy supplies are available. Today, that is quite limited.
From the focus of their energy publications, I am led to believe that the DOE largely remains in an easy energy paradigm where the solution to increasing world energy demands is to increase easy energy production. In this paradigm, forecasting focuses on the proved reserves of the energy companies. If the commercial companies have a good 20 years of proved reserves and were investing in adding production capacity to meet growing demand, then there was little reason to look beyond 20 years or so. This is what has been done for two generations.
But we now understand, from experience, that this is shortsighted. Energy forecasters in the U.S. in the 1930’s saw a reduction in new discoveries of conventional oil in the U.S., even though domestic production was increasing. They correctly anticipated peak domestic oil production in the decades ahead and saw that early U.S. Government action to secure new foreign resources was needed. The British had determined that vast (at the time) oil fields were easily exploitable in the Mideast. When British influence in the area diminished during World War II, President Roosevelt exerted U.S. political influence to secure U.S. oil company involvement in opening these new oil fields. In the 1950’s formal projections of peak U.S. conventional oil production were made for the early 1970’s. In the 1970’s, the same was done for the world. This time, however, proactive Government action to prevent future U.S. energy shortages, such as happened in the 1940’s in the middle of World War II, did not happen.
Today, a comparable situation is developing with peak world conventional oil, coal, and natural gas production. Serious attention is needed to plan and successfully execute a transition to sustainable energy sources—particularly second-generation renewable energy sources. But this does not appear to be on the radar screen of the Secretary of Energy and his staff. His focus is on global climate change and first-generation renewables—renewables that lack the potential to provide a significant share of U.S. and world future energy supplies.
When Dr. Chu opened a Face Book page with the ability to initiate discussion, I thought it was a good idea to raise this important energy policy and planning issue. I did this on July 22, 2009. Now, several weeks later, only one person has responded with a comment and it was not the Secretary of Energy or a member of his staff.