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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

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

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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.

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

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