Policy

Energy Choices Are Bearing Down On Us, With Hard-To-Swallow Costs In Tow

The future of energy may be "green," or maybe not. Regardless, it will come with tough choices and real costs. i i

The future of energy may be "green," or maybe not. Regardless, it will come with tough choices and real costs. Jochen Luebke/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jochen Luebke/AFP/Getty Images
The future of energy may be "green," or maybe not. Regardless, it will come with tough choices and real costs.

The future of energy may be "green," or maybe not. Regardless, it will come with tough choices and real costs.

Jochen Luebke/AFP/Getty Images

Energy is not a thing.

It is not a cell phone. It is not a PS3. It is not a new Lexus. It is not a product in the sense we denizens of consumer culture have become so comfortable embracing. Find an intro-to-physics book, look up "energy" and you will find something like "the ability to do work."

What a strange, amorphous, slightly circular sounding definition. If you want to understand the depths of the problem facing our culture you need look no further. We treat energy like a product, like a thing. From the fundamental perspective of physics, however, it is something altogether different.

Last week a good friend of mine and I were talking about nuclear energy in the wake of the Japanese tragedy and the ongoing crises at the Fukushima plant. My friend is super sharp but is not a scientist. Musing on the future he said, "Eventually they will find another kind of energy."

"Another kind of energy ... "

His attitude is, essentially, that "a miracle will occur and science will make it happen." This perspective is common and I have written about its dangers before. There is a sharp irony in this viewpoint when it comes to energy. For the most part, the miracles we have come to expect from science all derive from an "accident of energy" over the last hundred or so years.

We have been lucky this last century. We tripped over a cheap, abundant and prolific energy carrier in the form of petrochemicals. Because a cubic centimeter of oil carries so much easily liberated energy, and because it was relatively easy to get out of the ground, we have grown used to power flowing miraculously from our wall sockets and gas pumps. We have grown so used to this "fact of life" that we can barely even see that it's there.

But that age of innocence and ignorance is over and no amount of wishing for miracles can change that. We are faced with choices even if we seem determined not to make them.

Cheap, easy-to-procure fossil fuels are running out fast. Even if we had an endless supply of them, their use alters atmospheric chemistry in ways we will soon find more than a little uncomfortable.

Nuclear (fission) power generates its own problems in the form of waste that will endure longer than most civilizations. Still, newer reactor designs appear much safer than the geriatric systems we now have in place. Is it worth the risk?

Renewable energy systems continue to show promise. Yet it seems more than a little unclear whether we could ever power the culture we live in today using only wind, solar and their ilk.

Nuclear fusion takes us closer to the promise of a power source we could rely on. But we have many thresholds to cross before the advent of workable, commercial fusion reactors. Our power demands can't be put on hold to wait for that dream to turn into reality.

We have choices and they all come with a cost. The first step in making a wise choice, however, will be to stop treating energy like it's just another product.

It is the bedrock, the ground upon which all of our modern society is built.

You don't make energy the way you make an iPhone. Instead, you must attempt to channel or transform energy that the universe has already locked up in some other form. The act of that transformation will always have consequences. That is where the cost lies.

We must recognize the nature and size of the costs. We must also recognize how rapidly the need to make choices about a new energy future is bearing down on us. Only then will we be ready to stop thinking that science is going to save us from having to make it.

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