A Brief (Recent) History of Technology
This is an opportune time to take stock. We've just passed the 20th anniversary of the "Woodstock of Physics" — that famous American Physical Society March meeting at the New York Hilton where the New Age of high-temperature superconductivity was proclaimed.1,2 And we are fast approaching the 30th anniversary of that televised energy speech by Jimmy Carter, attired in his cardigan sweater, warning us we were confronting "the moral equivalent of war."3,4
Well, we have yet to see anything approaching the practical zero-resistance power transmission lines, ultra-high efficiency motors and generators, levitating high-speed trains and SMES (superconducting magnetic energy storage) that were promised to be just around the corner. The much-maligned Jimmy Carter and his prescient energy challenge were essentially ignored — and followed alarmingly soon thereafter by the Iranian hostage crisis, which precipitated the second historic oil price spike within a decade. (Does anyone still remember, for example, the US Synfuels Corporation?)
America was essentially "energy independent" in 1950; today, we rely on imports for as much as two-thirds of the petroleum — and about one-third of the total energy — we consume.
Concurrently, unprecedented technological advances in a wide variety of disciplines have revolutionized our lives. Here are some obvious examples from just two technology arenas:
In the energy/environmental field, I contend that we have nothing to compare. Granted, significant and encouraging progress has been made over the past few decades — once the problems were identified and widely acknowledged — in cleaning up our environment. We've vastly reduced harmful air emissions and process waste streams and essentially eliminated the deleterious effects of such recognized pollutants as DDT and CFCs and some known carcinogens.
However, I would further observe that much of this progress was relatively straightforward and just required putting in the effort, relying for the most part on extensions of existing technologies. Similarly, most of the recent progress in fuel utilization and energy conversion can be attributed to incremental technology advances — such things as enhanced fossil fuel detection and recovery techniques; gradual improvements in power plant and direct conversion efficiencies; the emergence of higher-temperature and/or higher strength-to-weight engineered materials.
Here are just two diverse examples:
Remember magnetohydrodynamics (MHD)? Remember ocean-thermal energy conversion (OTEC)? Remember breeder reactors and nuclear fusion? One might argue that the last significant energy technology breakthroughs occurred over a half century ago with the development of commercial nuclear power (mixed blessing though it has turned out to be!) and the practical semiconductor photovoltaic cell (by, among others, RCA Sarnoff and Bell Labs). Since that time, commercial nuclear power has plateaued (at least domestically) and PV applications have been mostly confined to niche markets.
Indeed, there is nothing new under the Sun — not even the Sun! Photovoltaic, solar-thermal and other renewables technologies have made impressive gains over the past few decades; but even these advances can largely be described as incremental. (The technology breakthrough still needed to make most renewables a practical widely-adopted option is a really effective energy storage system.) What has made these and other non-traditional energy technologies more economically attractive is that they are now competing with vastly higher conventional energy costs, with the expectation that future regulatory requirements may further narrow the gap.
How were we able to get from Fermi's first successful controlled nuclear fission to Little Boy and Fat Man in less than 3 years with the Manhattan Project? And to commercial nuclear power generation a dozen years later? Why is it expected to take longer now to get back to the Moon than the 8 years from JFK's initial challenge to the landing of Apollo 11 when we started from scratch?
Our Energy Challenge
Historians of the distant future (should we be fortunate enough to have one!) are likely to view the era roughly beginning with the last two-thirds of the 20th century as a watershed period. It is the time when mankind's collective activities first bumped up against two global limitations: (1) the impending depletion of finite energy resources and (2) the ability of our surroundings to absorb the consequences of our energy use.
Many forward-looking thinkers5-11 of this era have made us well aware of the issues. One of my personal favorites is Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons."6 Hardin's metaphor describing how each of us — making rational choices based on self-interest — has contributed to the collective degradation of our finite "commons," is compelling.
Let me make one point especially clearly: it is indisputable that mankind has substantially affected our environment, both locally and globally; and, while the Earth is amazingly resilient, we cannot continue on this path indefinitely. As explained by Thomas Homer-Dixon:
"Without a doubt, mankind can find ways to push back these constraints on global growth with market-driven innovation on energy supply, efficient use and pollution cleanup. But we probably can't push them back indefinitely, because our species' capacity to innovate, and to deliver the fruits of that innovation when and where they're needed, isn't infinite." 12
We may debate (and many do!) some of the specifics; for example:
Nevertheless, the trends are undeniable. We are no longer discussing "whether or not" but "when."
I have deliberately avoided a precise prediction of how soon we will officially have a "global energy crisis." Such predictions are notoriously difficult, and not necessarily that meaningful since they are based on so many assumptions about available energy resources and trends in energy demand. Suffice it to say that it will occur on a time-scale sufficiently short to affect the lifestyles of people who are alive today.
I am suggesting a sense of urgency, not of panic. Just about every human activity (with the possible exception of golf) involves the expenditure of energy; and every expenditure of energy has some environmental consequence. So we cannot afford to ignore this.
Energy and environmental considerations are already affecting the way we live and the choices we make. Who among us is still naïve enough to believe that the American military preoccupation with the Middle East has nothing to do with energy?20 Another Prudhoe Bay-scale oil discovery may delay the "crisis" stage by a few decades, but it won't prevent it. Furthermore, as China and India and the other "sleeping giants" of the developing world emerge into modernity and demand their piece of the action, the situation can only get worse.
Our goal — and the goal of all who feel any sense of obligation to succeeding generations — should be to achieve a responsible balance between the economic and social benefits of energy use and its environmental impact. This will require a long-range energy strategy that is sustainable... sustainable with respect to our consumption of finite resources and also to the burdens we place on our environment. At least three key issues are at stake:
The first step is to recognize the actual full value of the energy we do use. This energy should be priced accordingly to reflect, among other considerations:
The Good News, the Bad News
The good news is that we have sufficient technology in-hand and knowledge of effective efficiency and conservation measures to at least start down the path towards sustainability; the bad news is that, at least so far, we lack the will to do so.
One possible approach for getting our hands around the problem is examining a simple relationship;21 namely, the total global impact of energy use is the product of three factors: (1) the number of people, (2) the energy use per person and (3) the environmental impact per unit energy use.
Clearly, addressing one or more of these three factors will go a long way toward achieving a sustainable energy future. Garrett Hardin6, for one, believed forty years ago that "there is no technical solution" and that our only salvation would be in coercive population control. I tend to believe that we can be more creative than that.
Reducing our per capita energy use and the associated environmental impact can be accomplished through a variety of "supply-side" and "demand-side" measures, employing both existing and innovative technologies and some obvious, though potentially hard-to-swallow life style changes. There is no single "magic bullet" to solve all our energy problems; each option (from nuclear to renewables) has its own advantages, disadvantages and inconveniences. However, a serious commitment to a "portfolio" of relatively modest initiatives can collectively make a huge difference.
We will undoubtedly have to increase our proportionate use of renewable and other nontraditional energy sources, as well as devising ways to use our large coal and nuclear resources in a more environmentally benign manner. However, energy conservation and life-style changes can have the largest near-term beneficial effect. It should be a no-brainer... when you finally realize that you are approaching a cliff, the first thing to do is ease off the gas pedal!
Here are just a very few examples:
It is ironic that precisely because there is no single definable goal (like building the A-bomb or landing on the Moon) it will be difficult to marshal the concerted effort needed to implement these and other incremental improvements. Here are some other obstacles we face:
It is this last issue — the general resistance of a good part of the business establishment to anything "green"22 — that is the most cynical. Declaring that strengthening energy efficiency and emissions standards would threaten US competitiveness is just an implicit admission that US technology is no longer world-class. For example, the unresponsiveness of Detroit to clear market signals is precisely what is causing them to fail (along with the burdens of health care costs). Furthermore, we will be missing out on establishing a (very achievable!) leadership position in a wide variety of energy- and environmentally-sensitive products and technologies unless we get more serious; already, our traditional leadership position in photovoltaic technologies is shifting offshore.
In fact, there are some encouraging recent trends. An emerging consensus of major US industrial leaders and environmental groups is pushing for a more predictable regulatory position on controlling greenhouse gases.23 The huge Texas utility, TXU, is reconsidering its plans to construct eleven large coal-fired power plants in favor of perhaps "greener" options.24 In a further attempt to fill the void in national political leadership, many State (most notably, California) and local communities25 are beginning to consider their own initiatives for innovative energy technologies and addressing environmental concerns.
From a long-range global perspective, there is also some cause for optimism. As individual economies develop and grow, per capita energy consumption grows along with gross domestic product; but at some point, as these economies adopt modern industrial technologies and then enter the post-industrial world, per capita energy consumption per unit GDP (often called "energy intensity") actually begins to decline. Furthermore, as each succeeding developing country modernizes, these "energy intensity" peaks seem to be getting smaller and smaller.26 One challenge for the near future will be to assist the peoples of China and India in continuing this trend towards more efficient and environmentally friendly energy use as their economies grow.
The focus of any rational response should be on sustainability... how to manage finite resources, use them wisely and not further degrade our planet. We don't need to wait for that major technological breakthrough (as welcome as that might be!) to embark on a graceful transition to a sustainable energy future — but it will take a Manhattan Project-sized commitment and an Apollo Program-style focus to accomplish it. A major attitude adjustment will be required. We can't afford to lose another generation.
Selected References and Notes
1. "'Our Life Has Changed': The Lightbulb, The Transistor — Now The Superconductor Revolution," Business Week cover story, 6 April 1987
2. "Superconductors! The Startling Breakthrough That Could Change Our World," Time cover story, 11 May 1987
3. Jimmy Carter delivered this televised speech on 18 April 1977; for the full text, see: www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carter/filmmore/ps_energy.html
4. For a more recent, rather more inflammatory commentary see: Thom Hartmann, "Carter Tried to Stop Bush's Energy Disasters - 28 Years Ago," 3 May 2005, www.CommonDreams.org
5. Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring," Fawcett Publications, 1962
6. Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science (162), 1968
7. Barry Commoner, "The Closing Circle," Knopf, 1971
8. E.F. Schumacher, "Small is Beautiful," Blond & Briggs, 1973
9. Amory B. Lovins, "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?" Foreign Affairs, October 1976
10. Jonathan Schell, "The Fate of the Earth," Knopf, 1982
11. Bill McKibben, "The End of Nature," Random House, 1989
12. Thomas Homer-Dixon, "The End of Ingenuity," NY Times op-Ed, 29 November 2006
13. Robert B. Semple, "The End of Oil," NY Times, 1 March 2006
14. Daniel Yergin, "It's Not the End of the Oil Age," Washington Post, 7 August 2005
15. Kenneth S. Deffeyes, "Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage," Princeton University Press, 2001, as reviewed by Daniel V. Schroeder, American Journal of Physics (72,1), January 2004
16. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report, "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis," Paris, February 2007
17. Jim Hansen, "The Threat to the Planet," New York Review of Books (53, 12), 13 July 2006
18. Richard Lindzen, "Climate of Fear," Wall Street Journal, Editorial Page, 12 April 2006
19. The USA has 4.6% of the world's population, 22.5% of the world's energy consumption (DOE/EIA Annual Energy Review, Figure 11.3, 2005)
20. Antonia Juhasz, "Whose Oil Is It, Anyway?" NY Times, Op-Ed, 13 March 2007
21. I seem to recall my first exposure to this simple equation was from Barry Commoner, erstwhile Green Party Presidential candidate, perhaps at an early Earth Day event
22. For one particularly egregious example of this, see Daniel J. Popeo, "Surrendering Energy Independence," Washington Legal Foundation, in NY Times, paid op-Ed, 29 January 2007
23. Felicity Barringer, "A Coalition for Firm Limit on Emissions," NY Times, 19 January 2007
24. Clifford Krauss & Matthew Wald, "TXU Announces Plans for 2 Coal Plants Designed to Be Cleaner-Burning," NY Times 10 March 2007
25. Katie Zezima, "In New Hampshire, Towns Put Climate on the Agenda," NY Times, 19 March 2007
26. Amulya K. N. Reddy & Jose Goldemberg, "Energy for the Developing World," Scientific American, September 1990
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