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The Importance of Debating Energy Policies—Not Technologies

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


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As a researcher working in the area of energy technology and policy, I often find myself drawn into debates surrounding certain energy technologies, and what role they should play in the future energy system. People are quick to list the specific benefits or drawbacks of one technology over another: “Wind energy is fine at the small scale, but it will never scale up like nuclear!” “Electric vehicles will never be mainstream! We should be using natural gas!” “Battery storage is expensive and won’t last! We should be using thermal storage!”

Regardless of whether or not these claims are based in fact, I believe it’s a mistake to frame our choice of energy strategy in this way. Today, the energy we use comes from a variety of sources. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s most recent total energy flow diagram shows exactly where the United States gets its energy, and what that energy is used for. With U.S. energy coming from coal, natural gas, domestic oil, nuclear, renewables, petroleum imports, and more, it’s clear that we do not currently rely on any one particular energy source. In fact, we benefit from a diverse mix.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) documents the source of all U.S. primary energy use, and then approximates to which sector energy from each source flows. (Source: EIA)

Rather than converge on one specific technology, it is more likely that we will further diversify where we get our energy going forward. Renewable energy takes on a number of forms, including but not limited to hydroelectric, wind, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, tidal, geothermal, and biomass. Which of these renewable technologies makes the most sense varies from one location to another. In dry, sunny areas, solar photovoltaics are likely the best choice, because they run on sunlight and require very little water. In water-rich regions like the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Canada, most electricity can be produced in hydroelectric dams. And in coastal cities like New York and Seattle, tidal energy might be an appealing local electricity option. The renewable energy source that is the best option depends on the unique local geographic and weather conditions, so we are poised to further diversify our energy supply if we transition to renewable energy—not converge on one technology.

It’s a mistake to restrict our thinking to only certain technologies. If the goal of an energy strategy is to mitigate the threat of climate change, it need only meet two qualifications. First, it should reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a rate that halts Earth’s temperature rise below a certain threshold. Second, it should be practical and effective enough to achieve quick results. As Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the AAAS conference in Chicago last February:

…it’s a matter of basic common sense that when you have a very difficult task like [abating climate change], the more options that are available, the more likely you are to succeed. And, if any option is taken off the table, the chances of failing will increase. That’s especially because no two low-carbon options are alike. Solar, wind, geothermal, and nuclear each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Given the enormously varied nature of the energy system, this diversity is an asset. And the value of this diversity is all the greater because, in energy, there are always surprises. So, while it’s an interesting academic exercise to think about whether a single option – e.g., wind or solar — could do the trick, no serious strategy would advocate putting all our eggs in a single basket, especially given the magnitude of the stakes.

When discussing energy policies and the tools at our disposal to mitigate climate change, its important to not latch onto the common refrain of debating the merits of one technology over another. While we pit one vision for a hypothetical, far-off future against another, carbon emissions persist, and the climate continues down a worsening path.

To meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goals for climate stabilization, the United States will have to reduce its carbon emissions at a rate several times greater than the reduction achieved from 1990-2012. (Source: Richard Lester, MIT)

Make no mistake, the threat of climate change is urgent, and we must reduce carbon emissions as soon as possible in order to slow Earth’s rate of warming, and finally bring it to a halt. To date, not one of the policies or international treaties we’ve enacted has reduced emissions at the rate required to control the climate. Instead of debating technologies, we should debate the most practical and immediate steps we can take to reduce carbon emissions today using any technology at our disposal. There’s no time to waste. We need meaningful action to reverse the current climate trend before its too late.

Image Credits:

  • U.S. Energy Flow Diagram – EIA
  • Comparison of U.S. emissions reduction to IPCC goals – Richard Lester, MIT
Robert Fares About the Author: Robert Fares is a Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. student at the University Texas at Austin, where he studies the economic and environmental implications of emerging grid technologies. Follow on Twitter @robertfares.

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





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  1. 1. jmd@autoecorating.com 4:30 pm 08/21/2014

    Kudos to the author for making an important point that is commonly lost in discussions that confuse technology options for policy strategies. The country made great progress in cleaning up conventional air pollution and toxic discharges by being clear about the policy goals — namely, reducing the harms — and then letting the technology solutions follow. The climate policy debate too often confuses means (technologies) and ends (reducing radiative forcing).

    In this regard, the author slips up a bit in seeming to conflate a goal to “transition the energy system away from fossil fuels” with the goal of mitigating climate change. Fossil fuels are a class of technology and they way they are now mainly used (with unmitigated release of fossil carbon) clearly harms the climate. However, the prospect for carbon capture and sequestration is but one counterexample to an assumption that equates climate mitigation to a transition away from fossil fuels. It’s important to not let presumptive (and debatable) notions of a particular energy technology transition get obscure the clarity of purpose needed for defining policies to advance the undebatably urgent need to protect the climate.

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  2. 2. robertfares 5:29 pm 08/21/2014

    @jmd

    Thank you very much for your well reasoned comment. You are absolutely correct that I mistakenly conflated the policy goal of transitioning away from fossil fuels with the goal of mitigating climate change.

    In fact, I see near-term fossil fuel solutions like carbon capture and storage, efficient combined heat and power natural gas plants, natural gas vehicles, more-efficient gasoline vehicles, and others as a vital tool in addressing climate change. I think climate change is an urgent problem, and any solution that reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions should be considered, regardless of whether or not it involves fossil fuels.

    When I originally mentioned the policy goal of transitioning away from fossil fuels in the article, I was actually thinking about countries that don’t have sufficient domestic fossil fuel supplies, and want to transition away from fossil fuels for the purposes of energy security. Now that you mention it, that statement is out of place and doesn’t reflect the point I was trying to make.

    I removed the mention of transitioning away from fossil fuels to clarify my point. Thanks for the constructive criticism!

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  3. 3. Louise Stonington 5:33 pm 08/21/2014

    A carbon fee and dividend, a national charge levied on oil, coal and natural gas at their first point of sale (wellhead, mine or point of entry) with all the revenue returned to households through existing agencies like IRS & social security, with a border tariff to keep American businesses at home, would put give a price signal to investors that we consumers are going to increase purchases of efficiency technology and clean energy and decrease purchases of fossil fuel. Revenue neutral, market friendly, with incentives to other countries to legislate their own carbon pricing, this is what the federal US government can do now to maintain competitiveness in the energy market and consumer freedom to choose the option with lowest overall costs and benefits to our health.

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  4. 4. Dr. Strangelove 9:56 pm 08/21/2014

    “We need meaningful action to reverse the current climate trend before its too late.”

    The temperature trend since 1998 is flat, no significant warming. Reversing the trend would mean warming or cooling. Is that what you want?

    “we must reduce carbon emissions as soon as possible in order to slow Earth’s rate of warming, and finally bring it to a halt.”

    How slow? The trend is flat. Do you honestly believe natural climate change does not exist? If not for man, the climate would be static for millennia? The D-O events, Younger Dryas, Holocene Optimum, Medieval Warm Period, Little Ice Age are all man-made?

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  5. 5. voyager63 8:23 am 08/22/2014

    What I don’t understand is why you True Believers in anthropogenic GW don’t hitch your rhetoric to the REAL danger in dependence on fossil fuels. Then skeptics like me won’t matter because the GW debate itself will be, in fact it already is, beside the point: when the depletion of fossil fuels reaches a certain level–and this point is likely to come well before the point at which GW could become more than just threatening–the thirst for fossil fuels will make industrialized national economies unsustainable, and wars for control of the vanishing resources even among allies are inevitable.

    Sell real Armageddon, not gradual and piecemeal hard times.

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