Thursday, July 17, 2008

Energy Independence

OK, time to write something that isn't about vacation!

Forgive me if I ramble a bit. I see that Al Gore has thrown down the gauntlet on energy independence, or at least on the electricity front. His proposal to stop using fossil fuels (other than "clean coal") to generate electricity has merit on a lot of levels. It would free fossil fuels for potentially better uses, or at least ones that are harder to substitute.

I assume he intentionally timed his challenge to coincide with the anniversary of Jimmy Carter's famous address on energy independence (hat tip to Jonathan Schwartz for pointing that out). Jimmy made some amazing statements at the time:
Point one: I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation.
Yeah, that worked out real well.

When Carter delivered that speech in July of 1979, I had just graduated from high school, and during my senior year, as a member of the debate team we had debated the question of how the U.S. could increase its energy independence.

Interestingly, my partner and I spent the first half of the year advocating increased use of nuclear power, claiming it was far cleaner and safer than fossil fuels when you consider the entire fuel cycle. Then came the exciting convergence of Three Mile Island and the movie, The China Syndrome. Suddenly advocating nukes wasn't quite as palatable. So we turned 180 degrees and argued for banning and decommissioning all the nukes and replacing them with thermal energy generation retrofits on existing hydroelectric facilities. That was a bit esoteric, and probably not truly feasible on a national scale, but it was a lot of fun to debate.

Ultimately, the case I found most convincing (and hardest to defeat) that year was advocacy for energy conservation. There are very few good arguments against being more efficient in our use of existing energy sources.

And by far the most fascinating part of the energy debate to me was the argument over energy use and its effect on global climate. My research on the topic ultimately led me to major in Environmental Science and pursue (briefly) a career in public policy and government.

And now, nearly 30 years later, climate change is a common topic of conversation. Go figure.

What's amazing to me is how badly we've slid backward on energy. When Carter made his speech, he wanted to cut oil imports by half, "a saving of over 4-1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day." So imports were on the order of 9 million barrels per day. The CIA reported in 2004 that imports were running around 13.15 million barrels per day, and the U.S. Energy Information Agency now says that in 2006, net imports ran to 12,390,000 barrels per day.

Now, those aren't all equivalent numbers. The U.S. exports around a million barrels of oil a day, too, so the CIA and DOE numbers are pretty close. In any case, we're now importing on the order of 50% more, not the 50% less that Carter set as the goal.

Heck of a job, guys.


dragonfly said...

I don't understand why we're exporting oil and, I've heard, coal. Is that in the form of aid?

Sarette said...

There's only two ways to truly fix our energy problems: conservation and get into space for real.

Neither topics are very popular these days.

In the short term we're going to need nukes just to keep ourselves limping along, and do what we can to change over to renewables. But those are all band-aids so long as we have a population that's growing, as well as a technological civilization that is demanding ever-more power per person.

The true fix for our problems lays in a real space program. But I don't have enough room here to get into why. :)