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Guiding Principles for Shaping US Energy Policy
When deciding which course to take on energy policy, the government must take into account more factors than the mere convenience of our citizens. It must consider national security and the future of the country beyond the next election. Temporary stop-gap measures that focus on finding and exploiting finite resources do not serve the nation’s people, its security, or--most importantly--its posterity. Energy policy must be directed toward finding an energy solution that is clean, renewable, domestic, diversified, and decentralized.
A call for ‘clean’ energy carries a certain amount of political baggage, conjuring images of protesters denouncing industry and demanding protection for fuzzy animals. Leaving love of nature for nature’s sake aside, however, clean energy production is a laudable goal for very practical reasons.
First and foremost, dirty energy production, or rather, energy production that also produces a large volume of unintended consequences (pollution being only one) has hidden costs that someone must bear. Coal-fired energy plants, for example, produce greenhouse gasses and acid rain along with electricity. In addition, the pollutants in coal smoke contribute to asthma in the general population and aggravate conditions associated with other respiratory ailments. The extraction of coal from the earth is a hazardous and unhealthy activity, with miners suffering disproportionate rates of on the job injury and death as well as work-related sickness. These public health concerns must be taken into account when searching for a long-term energy solution.
Nuclear power plants seem clean by comparison. Fears of radiation leaks have been greatly exaggerated by both environmentalists and those with a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels. An old cathode ray tube television set emits more radiation than a modern nuclear plant. However, nuclear plants do produce a great deal of waste heat, and there is the continuing difficulty of what to do with the depleted nuclear fuel, which is extremely toxic even in miniscule amounts. Further, though a very small amount of uranium is needed to produce the controlled reaction in a nuclear power plant, even this nuclear fuel will run out someday.
Any long-term energy policy must eschew any non-renewable energy source. Even a fairly abundant fossil fuel deposit, like the natural gas shale in Pennsylvania, will run out. Once the domestic sources of fossil fuels are used up, they will be gone forever, and we will go from importing 57% of our petroleum1 to 75% to, eventually, 100%. We’ll examine why depending too much on foreign sources of energy is bad further on, but the point here is that our energy policy must lead us toward a dependable source of energy that will not run out. Scarcity drives up prices as we well know, and all of us remember when the price of gasoline recently approached (and in some markets exceeded) the $4.00/gallon mark. If we continue to depend on a dwindling supply of fossil fuels, our energy costs will continue to climb.
Heating and transportation costs will not be the only expenses affected by the coming scarcity of the world’s petroleum. According to the USDA, our food system accounts for about 16% of the US’s energy use2. This includes not only fuel for farm equipment, but also the processing of food (turning commodity corn into high fructose corn syrup, or turning meat and vegetables into a frozen dinner, for example), the delivery of food from the farm to the fridge, and the use of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers.
Clearly, a continuing dependence on finite petroleum fuels is unsustainable, even if we all stopped driving our cars tomorrow.
In 2012, the US imported about 40% of its petroleum, mostly in refined forms. Somehow, we still managed to export 3.1 million barrels per day of unrefined petroleum, making the US a net exporter of petroleum products3. Think about that: we're exporting unrefined oil and importing stuff like gasoline and diesel, which means we're artificially depending on foreign sources for refined petroleum when we shouldn't have to. Some of us remember the energy crisis of the 1970s, when we learned (at least for a while) that too much dependence on foreign sources of energy can have unpleasant consequences. At the time, the US was only importing 27% of its oil, but the OPEC embargo still crippled the US economy4. Imagine what a similar oil embargo could do to the United States now that it imports over 50% of the petroleum it uses.
In order to ensure that the oil keeps flowing, the US maintains an incredibly powerful (and costly) military force to project power anywhere that our supply lines are being threatened5. Of course, the military itself depends a great deal on petroleum-based fuels, which means that the US is using up a lot of oil to ensure the continuing supply of oil, which means there is less oil to go around, so the supply lines are even more important, and so on. This vicious circle may have been a factor leading to the US’s misguided invasion of Iraq, with the idea of ensuring a stable flow of oil from that country after the regime change. (If so, the invasion has so far had the opposite of its intended effect).
Clearly, dependence on foreign fuel sources (whatever that fuel might be) exposes the US to too much risk on the world stage. Once we produce all of our own energy within our own borders, we will no longer need to project power to protect a long and vulnerable supply line. We will be able to downsize our military, pay down our national debt, and even lower taxes. Most importantly, we will be able to decide whether to intervene in foreign conflicts without worrying about how such intervention (or lack thereof) will affect our energy supply.
Like any system that many people depend on, the energy sources that the US depends on ought to be diversified; that is, the energy should come from a variety of sources. A solar-only energy system, for example, would leave the Pacific Northwest with a dearth of available local energy, and would put a heavy strain on any system used to move energy from sunnier areas to make up the shortfall. Likewise, a wind-only system would leave everyone with less power on calm days. A truly robust clean energy system would capture and convert all forms of natural energy into a form of energy that we can use to move things from place to place and read political commentary on our computers. It behooves us to develop not only solar and wind power but also wave power, tidal power, biofuels, geothermal energy, and anything that will allow us to have more backup sources of energy in case one source becomes less useful or more expensive for some unanticipated reason.
The model we now use, with a relative few large power plants supplying energy to many customers over a vast area, has some advantages, to be sure, especially since most of our power plants burn coal to generate electricity. The coal must be brought to each generator, after all, and having one place to put all the coal is certainly more efficient than having to make many deliveries to many different locations. It’s also more energy efficient to run one large generator than to run several smaller generators. You get more current and less total pollution from the same amount of fuel in the lager generator. As long as coal remains the main source of our electrical energy, the large centralized power plant will be the better (and surprisingly, cleaner) choice, since the coal must be transported to the generators to make them run. One delivery point is more efficient (in terms of man-hours, fuel consumption, and energy use) than multiple ones. But coal cannot continue to be our main source of energy, for reasons mentioned above. Cleaner ways of generating current must of necessity be distributed rather than centralized.
Consider that both wind-generated and solar-generated electricity depend on the weather. In the desert, a massive, centralized solar collector would nearly always be capable of generating current, but in the Midwest, on a cloudy day, that collector’s output would be drastically reduced. A distributed system of solar cells, however, would be better capable of generating continuous power. Heavy cloud cover in one town does not always extend to the next county, for example. Solar energy captured in a sunny area can make up for the shortfall in an area that is overcast. The same principle would apply to wind farms. In a place where it’s nearly always windy (South Dakota comes to mind) a centralized wind farm can be considered fairly reliable. But in areas that regularly experience calm days, a more widely distributed system of wind generators would be more robust. Dependability is not the only reason for using a decentralized power generation model, however.
Consider that in a city with one large central power plant, a terror cell could create all manner of havoc by attacking the plant itself, a single point along the power lines, or one or more substations. One (or very few) target(s) yield a massive effect. While it may be easier to defend one power plant than to defend many, remember that it is nearly impossible to defend the entire length of the grid, even if we put cameras on each power pole. But with a distributed generation system, if the grid is interrupted at one point, it will be possible to redirect current from other areas; further, no one area will be very far from a power plant. The plants will be smaller, but will be able to support each other when load increases, whether because of an interruption caused by a mechanical failure or a deliberate attack, or because of increased demand on a hot day.
Look to the Future
A clean, renewable, domestic, diversified, and decentralized power generation system will be of great benefit to public health. It will also boost the economy, as the flow of energy will be more robust, less subject to fluctuations in supply levels, not subject to scarcity, and will continue regardless of political disagreements with foreign powers. Further, energy independence will mean that the US will no longer need to engage in military adventures overseas, or befriend oppressive foreign regimes, to ensure a continued flow of energy. The initial investment in infrastructure and training will be admittedly costly, but the savings in military expenditures coupled with future economic growth in a nation with a stable, robust energy supply will pay for that investment many times over. The United States will be cleaner, healthier, and truly independent once again.
An excellent treatment of how the US's resource-hunger drives it toward worldwide military intervention.