we must expand domestic energy production, and we ought not a priori rule out any of the methods: coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, and yes, wind, solar, and biofuels. However, we need to have some priorities here. The urgent need is massive amounts of energy now, both for static installations — factories, homes, street lights, and so forth — and transportation. For static installations the primary fuel now is coal, followed by oil (for heating homes). For transportation we burn oil, much of which must be imported. We don’t import coal.
The first order of business, then, is to increase domestic oil production and refining, but that’s a temporary measure, and has environmental consequences. We can tolerate some smog better than we can tolerate bankruptcy, but we’d prefer to avoid both. Over time we can phase in natural gas, which is also a good source for electric generation. Note that it takes energy to develop and produce sustainable energy sources: with cheap enough energy, the price of solar cells will fall. Solar cells produce low voltage energy, good for supplementing central power grids. Solar electric is very useful for home lighting and air conditioning and other on-site uses, and leaving out the conversion systems for putting that trickle into the grid makes the initial installation cheaper as well. If the overall cost of solar cells is low enough, there will be more such uses.
And of course when we mention electric power, the gorilla in the parlor is nuclear: we have the technology, and we ran the most expensive destructive test in history at Three Mile Island, where we learned that even when everything goes wrong the costs are economic, not a public health disaster. France and Japan have demonstrated nuclear’s long term cost effectiveness.
Our first order of business ought to be to reverse Jimmy Carter’s disastrous stoppage of spent fuel recycling, and start building nuclear power plants. Cheap electricity won’t free us from the billion a day we export to buy oil, but it will go a long way toward letting us develop the means to use natural gas and domestic oil to make us North America energy independent. Once we’re on that path we can have a good look at how biofuels fit into the pattern of sustainable energy; but that, I would say, is nowhere near the top of the priority list. In A Step Farther Out I showed that biofuels can be useful. I fear I didn’t make it clear enough that it wasn’t the top priority. Of course when I wrote that I didn’t know just how much energy trouble we would be in, although I should have: After all, those were the times when I wrote my major series “Our Looming Energy Crisis.”
Cheap energy is good for the economy. The 90’s economy was floated on cheap oil (around $20-$25 a barrel), and a new economic boom could be floated on cheap electricity. The trick is that you need much more than solar & wind can produce. For that you have to go nuclear.
If anyone is concerned about the environmental impact of increasing the number of Nuclear Power plants, get thee to a library and read Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy by Gwyneth Cravens. This book is by an environmentalist opposed to Nuclear Energy, but did actual, honest research on the subject and came to the conclusion that only Nuclear Power can provide the base load of clean electricity needed. Actual science trumps rhetoric. This was my Monday Book Pick for May 11, 2009 BTW…