Energy is the biggest issue we, as a nation, face in the long term. It is also an issue that, with proper leadership, could unite the nation and provide some common ground for both political parties.
The huge rise in our living standard since the Industrial Revolution is based entirely on the availability of abundant and cheap energy. This has been provided, past and present, primarily by fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Other energy sources – hydroelectric, nuclear, solar and wind – are inferior to fossil fuels in terms of availability, cost, safety or ease of use. In addition there are no alternatives to oil and natural gas in the field of transportation as it now stands.
Fossil fuels are finite; existing deposits are not renewable. If current consumption rates are maintained, we will eventually run out. We see this today in the case of oil. Though vast deposits remain and more are being discovered, oil is getting harder to find and extract, raising its price. This will make oil unaffordable long before the last barrel is produced.
Price is impacted by issues other than sheer availability. In the case of oil, turmoil in the Middle East remains a major factor. As for U.S. natural gas: it is now ultra-cheap because of the introduction of new drilling techniques. But as we increase exports the price level will rise, trending towards costs in Asia, which is three times what we pay here. Our current administration is also aiming at “outlawing” coal on the grounds (so far unproven) that it destroys the climate by emitting too much carbon dioxide. The result will be an artificial shortage of electrical energy.
Such issues act as barriers between the available resources and us consumers. If current trends continue we will become increasingly vulnerable to a variety of “energy shocks” caused by conflict, poor policy, inadequate planning or simple complacency. These shocks will directly affect us in terms what we can afford, how we travel (if we travel at all), how we heat our homes and what jobs are, or are not, available.
Energy is fundamental to the way we live. Because of this we cannot, as citizens, go on believing that things will somehow work out by themselves, or that the government, or the market, will fix them for us. We need to understand the issues and get involved.
The issues are:
Security of supply in the near and medium term
Despite recent increases in production, we are still importing much of our oil. We need to know how much we can actually produce. We should not phase out coal-based electricity until we have a viable alternative. We need a policy on how much gas we can export without imposing hardship on U.S. consumers.
Our energy infrastructure is old, often overloaded and vulnerable to disruption. In addition it does not adequately cover the country and connect producers with users.
Can we develop technologies to use less energy without sacrificing performance, comfort and ease of use? This applies to cars and trucks, housing, commercial buildings, appliances and many other fields. Much progress is being made, but a lot remains to be done.
Our reliable fossil fuels will eventually run out or become unaffordable. Provision must be made for research and development into other sources, all the way to the distant future. Current “replacement” technologies, such as wind and solar, must be given their proper niche, but we need not be limited to that. Americans can be very inventive when put to it.
The bad news is that the above will require a lot of work and money, private and public. The good news is that energy security is a national goal around which we can unite, because we need it.
In an earlier article we offered the economic expansion during WWII as a model to generate growth in our time. Energy security is a goal around which such an American economic renewal can be built.
Born in Poland, Jacek Popiel was educated in Africa, Canada, and the United States. He speaks five languages. His career spans military and international business development in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and Japan. He is currently a freelance writer and political consultant. His book “Viable Energy Now,” grew out of his military and international business experience and his professional involvement with energy issues.
Frank Shannon served in the U.S. Army, was an engineering/operations manager for AT&T for 27 years, was the owner of a small manufacturing business for 23 years, served as Colorado Chair of the Coalition for a Prosperous America and moved to Mesquite in 2013.