Daniel B. Botkin’s new book, Powering The Future: A Scientist’s Guide to Energy Independence, offers a balanced look at the issues surrounding our future energy resources. In his own words, Botkin provided CleanTechies with an overview of his vision:
“We hear so many opinions about how to solve America’s energy problem that it is hard to know what to believe. As an ecologist with a background in physics, and as previously as chairman of the Environmental Studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I have long been interested in how energy is obtained and used in natural ecosystems, how energy from our environment affects us, and how we affect our environment in our pursuit of energy.
“For my work, I had to keep up with energy issues, and in doing so noticed some odd contradictions that began to occur around 2002. Solar and wind were already providing energy in many parts of the world, but environmental economists I worked with kept telling me a very different story. ‘The conventional wisdom,’ they said, was that solar and wind power could never amount to anything. Even when I set up conference calls with those involved in the solar energy manufacturing, these economists repeated the same mantra in response to each fact.
“About that time, the New York Times published an interview with James Lovelock, the famous British chemist and environmentalist who came up with what he called ‘the Gaia Hypothesis,’ an expression of the idea that we are all connected to all of life by a planetary system. Commenting on the energy problem, Lovelock said, ‘If it makes people feel good to shove up a windmill or put a solar panel on their roof, great, do it. It’ll help a little bit, but it’s no answer at all to the problem.’
“Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people in developing nations were buying or building cheap solar and wind devices to provide them with enough electricity to cook their food, run computers and some small home appliances, and thereby join the modern age. It wasn’t just making them feel good; it was improving the fundamentals of their lives. And Germany, Italy, Spain, and even the United States were beginning to install large solar and wind facilities.
“With all the debate about our energy supply, the end of the era of cheap and abundant oil and gas, and concerns about global warming, I decided to look at each form of energy: how much is available, how much we are using now, how much we will use in the future, what our options are to move away from fossil fuels. The approach would be the same one I have used for all scientific problems: looking at the most reliable data available and making the obvious calculations and analyses.
“In the past, I’d always been surprised by what the facts revealed, because so often what they told me contradicted the conventional wisdom. In many cases, the facts — especially quantitative information — necessary to reach a conclusion are completely lacking because nobody ever bothered to get them, and without these, of course, even the simplest calculations and analyses haven’t been done.
“And when I looked into what was being said about the energy problem, I found the same thing. It was just what Gilbert and Sullivan wrote in the 19th century in their musical comedy, ‘H.M. S. Pinafore:’ “Things are seldom what they seem; Skim milk masquerades as cream.”
I’ve put the results of my findings in a new book, Powering the Future: A Scientist’s Guide to Energy Independence . Here are a few of the things I found out that surprised me, and may surprise you:
- Conventional nuclear power can never become one of the primary sources of energy over the long-haul, for reasons independent of the problems of radioactive waste management. Since it takes a long time to design, locate, get approval, and build these plants, they’re also not a good short-term solution.
- T. Boone Pickens made an interesting suggestion: America should move to alternative energy and use natural gas as the transition fuel. He suggested that we could fuel all our cars and trucks with natural gas in that transition. That sounded good until I looked into America’s natural gas reserves. If we decided to become energy independent and use natural gas obtained only with today’s known technology and clean methods of mining the gas, we would run out in a few years.
- America has a lot of coal, and in the past coal-fired power plants were as cheap as any to build. Why not a coal future? What about all the talk of clean coal technology? Well, the cost of building even conventional coal- fired power plants has risen recently, clean coal technology is experimental and likely to be very costly. And the continual cost of buying fuel puts coal-fired power plants at a disadvantage with alternative energy, especially when you take into account what economists call the social discount factor.
“So where does that leave us? How can we make a transition away from petroleum to an energy independence that is economical and environmentally sound? First, let’s make certain that the ‘conventional wisdom’ is not blinding us to the most practical solutions.
“Second, we have to step outside of our comfort zone and accept the inescapable fact that none of the solutions is going to be cheap. Despite our hue and cry when prices at the pump rise by a nickel or dime, gasoline, kerosene, and diesel fuel are remarkable products, containing an awful lot of energy in a small volume that is easy to move around and has been easy to get and make. This is part of the reason that alternative fuels seem so expensive. But, for most of human history, energy was difficult to obtain and precious.
“In our future, energy doesn’t have to be difficult to obtain, but we have to begin the transition now at a rate that is not yet taking place. Many related investments and new technologies are going to be necessary if the lifestyle and comfort we take for granted will be there for our children and grandchildren.”