A Future without Fossil Fuel

By Berger, John | Earth Island Journal, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

A Future without Fossil Fuel


Berger, John, Earth Island Journal


Within about 50 years -- and possibly sooner, if we choose -- the world will greatly reduce its massive reliance on fossil fuel and nuclear energy by shifting to clean, sustainable renewable energy sources.

Since 1970, we've spent more than a trillion dollars just buying foreign oil. More than 50 percent of the oil we use is imported. The growing costs of these imports deprive us of money we could otherwise use to rebuild our industries and transportation systems, and to fund our medical care and educational systems.

Each year the US spends $56 billion on imported oil and another $25 billion for the military defense of our oil interests in the Middle East. Federal subsidies to the oil industry drain another $20 billion or so while the environmental and health impacts of air pollution add another $150 billion. The total comes to more than $250 billion a year.

The nation's domestic petroleum reserves are declining sharply. In 1994, for the first time, the US began importing more than half of its oil. Slaking the nation's growing thirst for oil already consumes 9 million barrels of foreign crude a day. If current trends continue, the US will be totally dependent on imported oil in just 15 years.

The sooner we make it a high priority to create a modern, energy-efficient and renewable energy economy, the sooner we can begin enjoying all its economic advantages in trade, energy security, employment and domestic investment. A global fossil-fuel economy is not sustainable for environmental reasons, especially in a world likely to contain ten billion people by the year 2070.

Efficiency: The Sleeping Giant

Efficiency is unquestionably the best resource because it makes energy cost-effective, profitable, safe, clean and dependable. At least half of all electricity we generate could be saved through the use of readily available energy-efficient motors and lighting.

With the US spending about $500 billion on energy every year, even a I percent net energy savings is worth nearly $5 billion a year. Greater efficiencies mean less pollution and improved public health and safety -- with no sacrifices or lifestyle changes.

In addition to savings on energy, powerplants and equipment, efficiency also spurs economic activity. And, since industries that are more efficient require fewer powerplants, they also create less pollution, and less money would need to be diverted for costly cleanups.

Because a kilowatt can be saved for a fraction of the cost of producing a new one, saving energy often pays far better internal rates of return than typical financial investments. But, unlike ordinary investments, the payback is tax-free, since it comes in the form of savings rather than as taxable income.

By taking full advantage of all the renewable and energy-efficient (R&E) technology now available, the US in the long-term could save more than $300 billion a year in energy costs while eliminating billions of tons of air pollution.

Energy savings in US buildings (which consume 40 percent of all our energy) could amount to more than $100 billion a year. Savings from making electric motors and lighting more efficient would yield another $75 billion annually. Overall electricity use could be reduced by three-quarters -- with no loss in energy services. Huge improvements in energy efficiency are also possible in the transportation sector (which derives 97 percent of its energy from oil). Vehicle fuel efficiency, for example, can be increased tenfold.

Increased energy efficiency already saves the US economy more than $110 billion a year over what we would be spending had energy efficiency not begun increasing after the 1973 oil embargo. By 1990, the reduction in actual electricity use, compared to forecasts based on US economic output (GNP) growth, was equal to the output of 350 large (1,000-megawatt) baseload powerplants. From 1973 to 1986, reduced electrical demand from improved efficiency averted the production of more than 880 million tons of C[O. …

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