U.S. Energy Policy the Need for Radical Departures: Dreams of a Near-Term Transformation Are Illusory. the Needed Massive Overhaul Will Take Time and Commitment

By Smil, Vaclav | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

U.S. Energy Policy the Need for Radical Departures: Dreams of a Near-Term Transformation Are Illusory. the Needed Massive Overhaul Will Take Time and Commitment


Smil, Vaclav, Issues in Science and Technology


Five years may be an entire era in politics, and as the recent global economic upheavals have shown, it is also a span long enough to hurl nations from complacent prosperity to panicky fears. Five years might also suffice to usher in, however belatedly, a sober recognition of the many realities that were previously dismissed or completely ignored. But five years is too short a period to expect any radical large-scale changes in the way in which affluent economies secure their energy supplies and use their fuels and electricity. Indeed, the same conclusion must apply to a span twice as long. This may be unwelcome news to all those who believe, as does a former U.S. vice president, that the United States can be repowered in a decade. Such a completely unrealistic claim is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of technical innovation.

Most notably, the process of accelerating innovation, habitually illustrated with Moore's famous graph of an ever-denser packing of transistors on a microchip, is an entirely invalid model for innovations in producing large amounts of commercial energies, bringing them reliably to diverse markets, and converting them in convenient and efficient ways. The principal reason for this difference is the highly inertial nature of energy infrastructure, a reality that is especially germane for the world's largest and exceptionally diversified energy market, which is also very dependent on imports. U.S. energy production, processing, transportation, and distribution--coal and uranium mines; oil and gas fields; pipelines; refineries; fossil fuel-fired, nuclear, and hydroelectric power plants; tanker terminals; uranium enrichment facilities; and transmission and distribution lines--constitute the country's (and the world's) most massive, most indispensable, most expensive, and most inertial infrastructure, with principal features that change on a time scale measured in decades, not years.

Similarly, as in any modern society, the United States relies on the ubiquitous services of enduring prime movers, some of which are only more efficient versions of converters introduced more than 125 years ago. Parsons's steam engine, Benz and Maybach's and Daimler's Otto-cycle internal combustion engines, and Tesla's electric motor were all patented during the 1880s. Others have been with us for more than 100 years (Diesel's engine) or more than 60 years (gas turbines, both in their stationary form and as jet engines). And, of course, the entire system of electricity generation/transmission/distribution originated during the 1880s and had already matured by 1950. Even more remarkable than the persistence of these concepts and machines is the very low probability that they will be displaced during the next 20 to 25 years.

But for scientists and engineers with an urgent need to engage in public matters and for policymakers responsible for charting a new course, the next five years should be a period long enough to accomplish three essential steps:

* Create a broad consensus on the need for embarking on the protracted process of phasing out fossil fuels.

* Engage in an intensive education effort that would make clear the transition's true nature and requirements as a complex, protracted, and nonlinear process that is unpredictable in its eventual technical and managerial details; will last for decades; and will require sustained attention, continuous R&D support, and enormous capital expense for new infrastructure.

* Offer a minimalist agenda for deliberate long-term action that would combine a no-regrets approach with bold departures from the existing policy prescriptions. This means that the agendas success would not be contingent on a single major variable influencing long-term energy actions, such as the actual progress and intensity of global warming or the future state of the Middle East, and that its eventual goals would envisage a system radically different from anything that would result from marginal tweaking of the existing arrangements. …

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