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“The Quest” for Energy Security: The Search for More Oil and Its Alternatives

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Mottanai: it’s a Japanese term that translates as “too precious to waste.” It’s the philosophy that guides the island nation’s approach to natural resources like energy, and it has become particularly important as the meltdowns at Fukushima have resulted in roughly 25 percent of Japanese electricity supply disappearing as other nuclear reactors remain shutdown.

It is also the antithesis in many ways of the American approach to energy, whether that is electricity, fossil fuels or renewables. We want, in the words applied to nuclear power once upon a time, energy to be “too cheap to meter.”  And, regardless of whether it actually is, we treat it as such.

That has been true throughout the long involvement in the U.S. with the “devil’s excrement,” which is how former Venezuelan oil minister and founder of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo described oil. We were the Saudi Arabia of oil before Saudi Arabia even existed as a country. Consultant Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates wrote the definitive history of this Age of Oil, a book called “The Prize.” He has now followed up, some two decades later, with a sequel “The Quest,” that details the search for more and more and more oil and other forms of energy in recent times.

That’s because we’re always worried about running out, as we should be. Back in 1881, preeminent scientist Lord Kelvin proposed windmills or wind-motors (we know them as wind turbines) as the solution to dwindling coal supplies in the U.K. In 1957, “the greatest engineer of all time” and father of both the nuclear Navy and civilian nuclear power, Hyman Rickover argued that fossil fuels in all their forms would run out between 2000 and 2050—a perhaps prescient prediction. Nuclear power would prove no substitute, he feared, and this would mean the end of cars, which rely almost exclusively on oil.

But Yergin suggests that only 20 percent of the world’s known oil has been produced to date, another 20 percent is accessible today, and rising demand will call forth technological innovation to unlock some of the other 60 percent as time marches on, much as the tar sands of Canada have begun to be exploited (setting aside environmental concerns—see image above). That’s despite a world that already produces roughly 30 billion barrels of oil per year—and one of nine of those barrels gets burned in a U.S. automobile.

Then there’s the shale gas explosion in recent years in the U.S. A combination of employing pressurized water to crack rock that contains natural gas and horizontal drilling to more easily access it has opened up new supplies (albeit with some question of how much exactly). At the same time, coal has made a comeback as an energy source, thanks to the rising demand in countries like China and India (much to the discomfort of those concerned about catastrophic climate change). And, despite Fukushima, countries like China are racing ahead to build nuclear power plants to ensure increasing energy supplies.

Last but not least, there are the so-called “alternatives”: Lord Kelvin’s wind turbines but also photovoltaic devices that turn sunlight into electricity and fuels made from plants. Each source of energy feeds off the others—oil companies were among the early adopters of solar power, according to Yergin, using it to provide the electricity to keep pipelines from corroding. And a wind turbine is “a pure embodiment of power from fossil fuels,” says environmental scientist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, because it requires coal for its steel and cement as well as oil for its plastic components.

The book is daunting at 800+ pages but also a masterful survey of the global energy landscape today, albeit with perhaps too little understanding of alternative energy supplies and too dismissive an attitude for concerns about dwindling fossil fuel resources. As economist James Hamilton of the University of California, San Diego observed in his blog, “meeting the growing global demand for crude oil over the last five years has posed significant challenges for the world economy. And those who worry that the next 5-10 years might be like the last [5] should not be dismissed as crackpots.”

But Yergin essentially calls for securing energy by diversifying supply, an echo of Winston Churchill’s words on switching the Royal Navy from British coal to foreign oil: “safety and certainty in oil lie in variety, and variety alone.” Modern life is founded on easy energy for light, warmth, cooling, mobility and, increasingly, culture itself. We will need every source of energy going forward—and more, if possible.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Dr. Strangelove 10:58 pm 09/21/2011

    I think the problem with energy is not supply but cost. There’s plenty of supply. Nevada alone receives more solar energy than all the power plants in the world. But it’s expensive to put solar panels all over Nevada. That’s just solar. You still have wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass. And if the French do well, we might have nuclear fusion in 20 years.

    If we ran out of fossil fuels, we can shift to electric cars; we can make biodiesel from used cooking oil and waste food and animal fats; we can get hydrogen fuel from water through electrolysis; we can extract methane from sewage, municipal wastes, animal manure, agricultural wastes and grass through anaerobic digestion; we can put wind turbines on top of tall buildings; we can put solar panels on roof of houses and sides of roads; etc. etc. It’s all about cost. Supply is not a problem.

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  2. 2. OgreMk5 4:23 pm 09/22/2011

    I agree with the Dr. There is plenty of supply. The question will be, who can afford to buy it?

    Then there is the question of efficiencies. If everyone in the US switched from incandescent lights to LEDs (80% of the output at 10% of the cost), we would save something like $30 billion over 30,000 hours and save 50 gigawatts of power over the same time frame. (These are estimates, but I think close enough for government work.)

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  3. 3. OgreMk5 4:31 pm 09/22/2011

    OK, found this at Energy Star:

    If every American home replaced just one light bulb with a light bulb that’s earned the ENERGY STAR, we would save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, save about $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars.

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  4. 4. dwbd 12:55 pm 09/23/2011

    “…the problem with energy is not supply but cost…”

    You’re stating the obvious. That’s like saying the problem is the laws of physics or the problem is reality. Cost is the means we use nowadays of measuring the reality of energy/resource/labor/technology inputs. Before we had economic systems you would say – the problem is we don’t have enough time & physical ability to get sufficient food for the winter.

    Technocracy actually advocates an economic system in which cost is directly calculated in terms of energy inputs. In that economic system the statement “… the problem with energy is cost…” would be equivalent to saying “… the problem with energy is energy…”.

    Curious how religious Greenies, believe you can ignore cost. Thus their advocacy for the LUNACY of Renewable Portfolio Standards. Yup, just legislate renewable energy, damn the cost, damn reality, damn the laws of physics. Why not just legislate away unemployment too? Just pass a law – zero unemployment in 10 yrs. And poverty too. Just pass a law declaring Zero poverty in 10 yrs. Interesting though, how some conservatives, like ex-Governor Arnie were big advocates for RPS. Wouldn’t have anything to do with the payolla from Oil & Gas lobbies who stand to profit enormously from RPS, would it?

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