| Advancing the principles of
in the 21st century
|V. Meeting Essential Human Needs|
Modern civilization depends on energy. While many people in developing countries only use modest to small amounts of energy in their day-to-day lives (much of it from wood or animal dung), most people in developed nations take it for granted. It is not until they are without electricity because of an act of nature, a California-style "brownout," or the 2003 U.S. blackout that they really discover the extent of their dependence. And of all the forms of energy, electricity, without a doubt, is the one component upon which citizens in developed countries most greatly depend. Access to affordable and reliable electricity creates jobs, promotes economic development and increases disposable income for consumers.
Figure 1 World Oil Consumption by Fuel Type
for the period 1970 to 2020. Source: International Energy
Outlook - 2002. DOE/EIA-0484 (March, 2002), p. 3.
The world's energy demands have increased consistently throughout the last half of the twentieth century. Since 1970, total energy use has doubled from just over 200 quadrillion BTUs annually to over 400 quadrillion in 2003.1 A BTU (British thermal units) represents the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. Over 80 percent of our energy comes from non-renewable sources such as oil, natural gas and coal. These inexpensive sources power our national economies and civilizations, and represent an important segment of the global economy as well. Oil alone contributes up to 1.6 percent of global GDP.
It is often said the earth is rapidly running out of these non-renewable sources of energy. A barrel of oil contains 5.8 million BTU. Currently, there exists a 1.0 to 1.2 trillion barrels of oil in reserve.2 This represents a mere 14.5-year supply. However, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, in its most recent assessment of oil's long-term production potential identified at least 3 trillion barrels (mean estimate) of ultimately recoverable conventional oil worldwide.3 Currently the world uses about 77 million barrels of oil annually,4 which means the world only has about a 40 year supply of economically available oil at the current rates of consumption.
The same picture holds true with respect to natural gas. The known reserves for natural gas extend for 65 years, despite a 75 percent increase in its use since 1980.5 On the other hand, affordable coal has always been used by man to warm homes. During the early industrial revolution cities used coal so heavily that people got sick and even died from the smog it created. Today, current technology can clean coal of its impurities and make it safe to use. There is a 230 year supply of coal in spite of a 38 percent increase in its use since 1975.6
We can burn coal cleanly, but only in large-scale power plants, where pollution controls are practical. In other words, burning coal cleanly is not an option for decentralized, distributed generation that renewable-energy advocates vigorously promote.
Are we really running out of oil? Gloomy short-term forecasts of oil supply have been the norm for the past one-hundred years. In 1939 the U.S. Department of the Interior projected only 13 more years of oil. In 1951, experts again projected that the U.S. would run out of oil in 13 years.7 Ironically, today's forecast of a 40 year supply of oil is three times greater than it was fifty years ago! Why have these projections changed? The answer is simple: As consumption and demand increased, so did the incentive to find more oil - and companies discovered more and more oil. Only a tiny fraction of the world's lands and oceans have been explored.
Much of the pessimism about oil resources has focused entirely on conventional resources. However, the decade of the 1990s saw technological advances that helped bring down the cost of producing liquid fuels from several non-conventional sources, including heavy oils, tar sands, and natural gas. More than 3.3 trillion barrels (oil in place) of heavy oil and tar sands is estimated worldwide, increasing likely oil supplies to 80 years.8 While only 1.0 to 1.2 trillion barrels are proven reserves,9 the U.S. Geologic Survey estimates that there may be as much as 724 billion barrels of conventional oil that are yet undiscovered.10 This will continue to increase the amount of reserves. In fact, one of the biggest potential undiscovered reserves was discovered in the Caspian Sea area of Southern Russia and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia in 2000. In May 2000, companies exploring in the Caspian Sea off of the coast of Kazakhstan discovered a mega-field that is estimated to contain between 30 - 50 billion barrels of oil.11 Oil is also being discovered in Northern Russia, prompting the Russian government to build a major oil export terminal in the Arctic port of Varandei.
It is commonly believed that the source of oil is ancient biomass that has somehow reacted under heat, pressure and possible bacterial action. The late Thomas Gold, former Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Cornell, disputed that view. He argues that hydrocarbons were formed directly from primordial methane (CH4) and smaller amounts of ethane (C2H6) deep within the earth under intense heat and pressure, and that it has seeped upwards. Gold based this hypothesis on the fact that the hydrogen:carbon ration of CH4 is 4:1 and that of petroleum is very close to 2:1. He believed that subterranean microbes v e r y s l o w l y reacted CH4 and rust (and a few other oxygen-bearing materials) to extract some hydrogen from CH4 and oxygen from rust to form H2O, leaving a lower H:C ratio - i.e. petroleum.12 While considerable disagreement exists about Gold's theories, if he is even partially correct it would potentially provide new geologic formations for oil exploration.
The U.N. concept of sustainable development and Agenda 21 minimizes the possibility of increasing resources. In 1985, the United Nations established the Commission on Sustainable Development, which issued its report, Our Common Future, in 1987. Commonly called the Brundtland Report, named after Gro Harlem Brundtland who served as the commission's chair, the commission defined sustainable development as "a notion of discipline. It means humanity must ensure that meeting present needs does not compromise the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs. And that means disciplining our current consumption."
While Brundtland's definition sounds noble and does offer good guidance in some situations, it assumes that all resources on earth are like an unchanging pie. Whenever someone takes a slice, there is that much less for others. But the Brundtland definition ignores the facts that, like any natural resource:
Therefore, we regard the report's statement as pessimistic. We should be insuring the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Copper is another example. The mining for copper is not a goal in itself, but a means to build products for human use. A primary use in the mid-twentieth century was wire for transmitting electrical power and telephone calls. If the Brundtland definition for sustainable development had been applied to transmission lines in the 1960s, the world would have depleted known reserves of copper by 2000, even with recycling. To be "sustainable," copper would have been subjected to an eighty percent reduction in use. This would have severely curtailed the use of electricity and communications, and short-circuited the budding electronics industry or space exploration, and many other programs.13 Instead, the year 2000 has come and gone and the U.S. still have plenty of copper because Americans did not limit production, hence they had the needed time and the incentive to create alternative ways of efficiently transmitting electricity and communications.14 The goal never changed. The means of attaining the goal did change as new technology became economically available.
Some advocacy groups within the United States and the international community constantly proclaim we will run out of this or that resource because they are in finite quantities Indeed, they are finite, because the earth itself is finite. That, however, is not the issue. While many may ultimately be limited in some practical sense, man's imagination and creativity are not. Consequently, humanity has always found an economically viable way to achieve the goals it requires to improve the human condition. It can come in:
In every case, however, it requires individual freedom and a free market to provide the incentive to find it. All resources and technologies are first discovered in the human mind, which the late economist Julian Simon correctly called "the ultimate resource." But burdensome government restrictions almost always limit initiative and creativity - stagnating the human condition and eventually leading to its deterioration.
When discussing sustainability of natural resources, it is essential to make a distinction between copper, iron, nickel, and other such useful metals, and oil, coal, natural gas, and other fuels. Aside from the trivial amounts of metals we have sent into space never to return, there is no less of those metals on the earth than there was a thousand years ago. For example, iron ore is now dispersed in forms used by humans, such as I-beams, girders, automobiles. Even iron that is no longer directly used is still accessible in dumps, scrap yards or unused buildings. In principle, all "unused" metal can be gathered and recycled into useful products. The ultimate price to accomplish the task is energy.
Fuels are a different matter. There is less coal, less oil, and less natural gas on the earth than there was last year. Still, while there is less on the earth, new discoveries have increased available supplies. It is availability, not the hypothetical absolute quantity that is essential in determining sustainability.
Availability is key. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) of US DOE estimates that the ten largest oil fields in the United States will still contain 63 percent of their original oil when production closes down.15 It is very likely that improving technology will decrease costs, making this oil economically available well beyond the 22nd century. Further, environmental politics have placed many of America's best oil and coal field prospects off limits in Alaska, the West, and the Outer Continental Shelf. In addition, DOE estimates that Americans could save anywhere from 50 to 94 percent of our home energy consumption, thereby reducing future demands.16
The United Nations view of sustainability also rests on two common misconceptions. First, curtailing the use of fossil fuel will do almost nothing to increase their vision of sustainability. Current predictions indicate that there is enough oil to only last the world 40 years. If the U.S. reduced its oil consumption by 10 percent - about what the Kyoto protocol would have required - the world's oil supply would be extended by less than a year - to 40.7 years. Such a reduction would seriously impact the U.S. economy for no real gain in sustainability. Even a 100 percent reduction in U.S. oil consumption would extend the world's supply to only 48 years. This is a mere blip on the scale of long-term sustainability.
The second misconception is belief that increased efficiency leads to decreased consumption. While large gains in energy efficiency have led to far more work done without a proportional increase in the use of energy, it has not diminished total energy needs. Cars and trucks, for instance, averaged 6 to 10 miles per gallon (mpg) in the 1950s. Today it is over 27 mpg today for cars in the U.S. and 21 for trucks. Nonetheless, demand for oil continues to increase - albeit at a far slower rate than would occur without the increases in efficiency. Likewise, solid-state circuitry has greatly diminished the energy requirements for electronics, but electricity demands continue to increase because the efficiency gains have allowed people to use more electronics.
Figure 2 Relative global energy consumption
for all fuel types by region and the United States. Source: Table
F\u2014World Primary Energy Production (BTU), 1980-2001. International
Energy Annual, 2001. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of
Energy, pp. 203-204. Updated March, 2003.
Those savings touted by the DOE are tiny compared to the 242 times more shale oil that is presently not economically available compared to conventional petroleum reserves. There are about 18.8 trillion barrels of oil in the form of shale oil.17 The World Energy Council estimates proven amounts of in place shale at about 210 billion tons and proven recoverable reserves at about 13.35 billion tons of oil (97 billion barrels) - a 1,260 year supply at current global consumption rates of 77 million barrels a year. Major deposits of oil shale exist in Australia, Brazil, Estonia, Jordan, Morocco, Thailand, and the USA.18 Using today's technology, this oil will become available only at prices above $40 a barrel - a price that was greatly exceeded in the summer of 2004. The easier-to-extract oil tar and shale oil would become economically available at costs of less than $30 a barrel, doubling global reserves.19 Experts also estimate that there is over eight times more energy in the more-difficult-to-extract shale oil than in all other energy resources combined.20 This represents a 5,000 year supply.21 As with fresh water (discussed in Chapter III), there are no shortages of primary energy supplies - other than those set by political and economic limitations.
This reality puts an entirely different perspective on the constant accusation that the United States is the biggest energy consumer in the world and is therefore an oil glutton. In 2001 the U.S. consumed 19.6 million barrels of oil, which is 25.5 percent of the world's consumption of 77 million barrels.22 However, that is down slightly from 27 percent in 1980.23 Part of this is due to increased consumption in other nations, but much of it is due to increased energy efficiency.
Figure 2 reveals total energy use in the U.S. has declined from 24 percent of the world's consumption in 1980 to 17 percent in 2001. The only other region with a comparable drop is Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.24 The collapse of the Soviet Union precipitated this decline. As a percentage of total energy used, the Asia/Oceana region now exceeds that that of the United States and the Middle East is rapidly closing the gap.25 Increasing energy efficiency in the United States since 1950 has almost halved energy use per dollar of GDP - from 21,000 BTUs to 10,570 BTUs per 1996 dollar of GDP.26 Without this gain of efficiency, United States consumption would have been much higher.
There are records of energy consumption dating back to colonial days, and of the population as well. It is a simple matter to gather the data and find the historical per-capita consumption of energy. Colonial America was not primitive; glass-making and metal smelting consumed energy, as did providing heat in homes in the bitter New England winters. Homes were poorly insulated and fireplaces were notoriously inefficient. Lighting from candles and oil lamps was particularly inefficient.
At the beginning of the 21st century, we drive cars, fly planes, flip on electric lights, sit at computers, air-condition our homes, keep all of our rooms warm in winter, and manufacture all sorts of things. One might suppose that we perhaps a hundred times as much energy per capita as did our colonial ancestors. But that impression is false.
In fact, Americans in the 21st century only use about 3.1 times as much energy per capita as did our ancestors did in the colonial times of Ben Franklin and George Washington.27 It has been a continual process of increasing efficiency and of finding even more ways to use energy.
Figure 3 Current and future global carbon
emissions by selected nations. Source: International Energy
Outlook - 2002. DOE/EIA-0484 (March, 2002), p. 6.
Critics will be quick to point out that the combustion of fossil fuels releases CO2 - one of the primary greenhouse gases that allegedly cause global warming. Figure 3 clearly shows that relative wealth is foundational for increasing the efficiency of energy use and therefore carbon emissions, ostensibly a key greenhouse gas pollutant. While the low carbon emission/GDP for France and Germany is partially due to their high use of nuclear power, the high ratios of India, China and the former communist block is of concern because that is where analysts forecast future energy increases to occur. The 2020 projections for these nations depend upon their ability to increase energy efficiency.
In addition, the previous brief discussion of global warming in Chapter III clearly shows there is strong and credible evidence that little or no man-caused global warming is actually occurring. Moreover, CO2 also acts as a free fertilizer, and makes crops more drought, frost, and pollutant resistant - strongly suggesting that burning fossil fuels just might prevent future starvation.
With increasing technology (coming primarily from the U.S. because of its free markets), there should be abundant cheap energy for everyone. Like the copper example above, high energy use is advancing technological development in the U.S., making it much more likely that developing nations can improve their economic condition much faster and at much less cost than would otherwise be possible. Even so, economic improvement is possible only with a free market with laws that enhance rather than dampen the wealth-creating phenomenon of private property rights. That is something the U.N. Agenda 21 and sustainable development are likely to inhibit, or even prevent. The inability of developing nations to effectively utilize available energy is not because the U.S. uses so much oil, but because of their own repressive command and control governments, which stifle creativity and hinder investment.
This paper focuses on the problems and opportunities of oil as the primary source of energy. The same conclusions are true, however, for other fossil fuel energy sources. Freedom, property rights and free enterprise will solve the world's energy problems much more quickly and effectively than the sustainable development policies being proposed by the United Nations, the international community, and activist NGOs.
Nuclear energy makes up 6 percent of global electricity production and 20 percent of the electrical energy from countries that have nuclear power plants. Nuclear power uses the energy of fission by splitting the molecules of uranium-235 and capturing the energy released in the process. One gram of uranium-235 is equivalent to almost three tons of coal.28 The real advantage of nuclear energy is that it does not pollute using current technology. Incredibly, radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants are actually lower than the radioactivity released by coal-fueled power plants.29
|Table 1. Percent of total electrical energy produced that comes from nuclear power plants for selected nations.|
|Rep. of Korea||38.6||Eastern Europe||17.0|
|Hungary||36.1||Asia & Oceania||12.3|
Source: World Net Energy Generation by Type, 2000. EIA
Nuclear Share in Electricity Generation. International Atomic Energy Agency. Power Reactor Information System
Currently nuclear power provides 16.7 percent of the world's electrical energy needs.30 With the exception of France which produces 78 percent of its power from nuclear sources,31 and Europe overall at 29.8 percent, most nations that use it produce between 10 to 20 percent of their total power production using nuclear. Interestingly, Europe uses much less fossil fuel for its electrical production than the U.S. because of nuclear energy. Along with the fact that the EU had to modernize the East Block electrical production facilities anyway, resulting in huge reductions in CO2 emissions, the nuclear power production allowed the EU to have the appearance of being generous in reducing its CO2 emissions below their 1990 levels for the original Kyoto Protocol. Even at a 10 percent reduction below 1990 levels, the economic hit to the EU would have been much less than for the U.S. at 7 percent reduction below 1990 levels.
As Table 2 indicates, the price of nuclear power is difficult to determine because different nations have differing levels of government support as well as different standards and safety requirements. Nonetheless, best estimates suggest nuclear plants using current technology can produce electricity profitably at a total cost of $(US)0.02-0.025 cents per kilowatt-hour. This compares to about $0.035-0.045 for electricity produced by modern gas-fired plants.32 The price of solar energy in Table 2 is misleading because huge subsidies, rebates and tax credits artificially deflate the price to $0.12 per kilowatt-hour.
|Table 2. Relative cost of fuel types for electricity at power plants per Kilowatt hour in the U.S.|
|Fuel Type||USA ($ US/KWh)||France (€ /kWh)2|
|Natural Gas||0.0338 0.059||0.031-0.043|
1 University of Michigan, April 16, 2001
http://www.engin.umich.edu/class/ners211/pro01/fuel_costs/fuel_costs.htm 2 The Economics of Nuclear Power. World Nuclear Association. March 2004.
Until 2002, the U.S. EIA projects that the use of nuclear energy will decline through 2020 for every nation and region except Asia, primarily because of its high cost and the difficulty of properly disposing of the nuclear waste. However, the IEA's 2002 International Energy Outlook has revised that estimate and now shows a near-term annual increase for nuclear power. Higher capacity utilization and fewer expected retirements of existing plants caused by increasing competitiveness have resulted in revised expectations for nuclear generated electricity consumption. World nuclear capacity is now projected to rise from 350 gigawatts in 2000 to 363 gigawatts in 2010 before falling to 359 gigawatts in 2020, with the greatest increase occurring in developing nations.33
|Table 3. Projected cost by fuel type and nation for the period 2005-2010.|
|USA ($ US/ kWh)|
Source: The Economics of Nuclear Power. World Nuclear
Association. March 2004.
Among the fears often stated for nuclear power is the waste materials that remain after they are used by a nuclear power plant. They remain radioactive for over 10,000 years, 100,000 years, a million years, or some other long time, depending upon the source of the information. In truth, about a hundred different radioactive isotopes result from fission, some with extremely short half-lives, and others with extremely long half lives. In fact, the mere existence of a half-life implies that there will always be some radioactivity remaining, at least in a mathematical sense.
Physicists often liken radioactivity to continual withdrawal of funds form a bank account that does not pay interest. The mathematics is the same. Assume that initially, there is a million dollars in that account. If we withdraw money at 1 percent per year - $10,000 in the first year - half the money will remain after 69.3 years. After another 69.3 years, the amount remaining will be a quarter of a million dollars. The half-life of the money is 69.3 years. In comparison, if 10 percent per year is withdrawn - $100,000 in the first year - the half-life of the money will be 6.93 years. Importantly, when the half-life is ten times shorter, the first-year withdrawal is ten times greater. The same relationship holds for every year, although the actual amounts are different.
The rate of withdrawal corresponds to the amount of radioactivity, with the following rules in force. The shorter the half-life, the more radioactive the substance. The longer the half-life, the less radioactive the substance. The health hazard to people from radioactive substances has to do with the radioactivity. Some of the radioactive by-products are so intensely radioactive that they don't last even until fuel rods are changed. Some of the radioactive by-products have such long half lives that their radioactivity is quite low.
For example, the worst materials are two isotopes with 30-year half-lives, strontium-90 and cesium-137. Strontium is a bone-seeker, having the same chemistry as calcium. Its radioactivity is of the beta type, which is relatively harmless for materials external to the body. Strontium's hazard comes from ingestion. Cesium-137 is also a beta-emitter, but it also emits very energetic and penetrating gamma radiation. Contrary to strontium, cesium does not have to be ingested to cause harm to people. Radiation exposure can come from mere proximity to unshielded Cs-137.
Nevertheless, the relatively short half-life of strontium and cesium means that they will not be around for long. After 300 years, they are reduced to 0.1% of their original intensity, and another 300-years reduces their activity by another factor of 1000. By the time 900 years have passed, the activity is a mere billionth of the original. While these times are very long on the scale of human life, they are virtually zero on the scale of geological processes. There is no reason why a well chosen geological repository can not be used to safely store radioactive waste from a full nuclear economy.
As with all other issues of hazardous waste, the question eventually is reduced to, "how much is safe?" We also need to distinguish between the waste itself and its environment. For example, if a little boy urinates in a swimming pool, the news media could write a headline about 100,000 gallons of contaminated water! While seemingly ridiculous, the same logic is frequently applied to nuclear waste.
A nuclear power plant that produces 1000 MW of electricity for every second of a year produces only about one metric ton (one tonne) of high-level nuclear waste, the volume of which would fit under a kitchen table. The waste is actually in the original fuel rods with about 15 tonnes of uranium oxide, and the fuel rods themselves weigh something. The weight becomes even greater when the fuel rods are packed into stainless steel containers for eventual shipping after having been stored in cooling tanks for a few years. It is common for media headlines to cite the total weight as if the entire package were radioactive.
Another disadvantage of nuclear power is that there is only sufficient uranium-235 for about 100 years at present use34 using current light-water technology. One way to remedy the short supply is simply to find more; however there is far more to gain simply by using uranium more efficiently.
Natural uranium consists of 99.3% U-238 and 0.7% U-235. The uranium fuel put into light-water reactors has been enriched to between 3% and 6% U-235 because U-235 is the preferred fuel for such reactors. A U-235 nucleus can absorb a slow neutron to become a U-236, which rapidly breaks apart (fissions) into two nuclei, accompanied by the release of a tremendous amount of energy and a few fast neutrons. Slowed down by the hydrogen in water, other U-235 nuclei can absorb these neutrons and a chain reaction results.
Another process also occurs. Uranium-238 nuclei can absorb fast neutrons to become U-239. The U-239 quickly discharges beta particles and becomes a plutonium-239 nucleus. The Pu-239 behaves just like U-235, absorbing slow neutrons and undergoing fission. As it happens, about half of the energy produced by a nuclear reactor actually comes from fission of Pu-239 nuclei that were not part of the initial fuel load.
A breeder reactor is designed to produce Pu-239 from U-238, thereby producing more fuel than it uses. An economy that got all of its energy from breeders would produce Pu-239 as fast as it was used, therefore maintaining a steady-state quantity of Pu-239. Although Pu-239 is the material of nuclear weapons, it always exists in a highly radioactive environment making it very hard to steal and use in weapons. Governments can also reduce risk by requiring the use of Generation-IV reactors. Generation-IV reactors allow the utilization of all of the energy available in uranium, while being inherently safe and proliferation-proof.
Theoretically, more efficient use of uranium would extend supplies by a factor of about 100, up to 14,000 years at present consumption.35 But even this is a vast underestimate. The 14,000 year supply estimate is based on economically available uranium. There are far more uranium in deposits that are not presently economically available. Just as the quantity of available oil increases with price, so does the quantity of uranium, but very dramatically. Suffice it to say that there is enough uranium to last not just millennia, but millions of years.36
There has been considerable effort to develop fusion technology which fuses two hydrogen atoms into a single atom of helium. A single gram of fuel can develop the same energy as 45 barrels of oil.37 The fuel in this case comes from sea water (or any other water), which in today's world is virtually limitless, and it produces no radioactive by-products from the fusion itself. However, all presently conceived fusion reactors would have the process take place in vacuum. The copiously produced neutrons would transmute the materials of the containment wall into radioactive species unless vacuum containers could be built of materials that do not transmute into radioactive species. Alternatively, the fission-fusion hybrid machine could utilize the fast neutrons to produce fissile material from either uranium or thorium.
Fusion demands exceedingly hot temperatures, and so far scientists have limited research to learning exactly how much heat is required in order to develop machines capable of producing fusion power. One certainty seems to be that fusion machines will be huge. It will be decades, if ever, before this source of power can be viable or economically competitive.
In an abstract sense, renewable energy has several advantages over fossil fuel energy production. It pollutes less, can be produced within the country, reducing import foreign currency requirements, and emits no CO2. In addition, many of the technologies are easy to repair and/or transport and are ideal for developing nations and remote areas.
Hydro, Biomass and Geothermal. In spite of these benefits, renewable energy production constitutes only 7.4 percent of the global energy production.38 Of that total, hydro power is the most important, providing 6.6 percent of the world's power needs. Sixty-three nations supply more than 50 percent, and 23 countries supply at least 90 percent of their electricity production with hydro power. Although hydro power has been around a long time, there are few additional opportunities for expansion. Dams also interfere with river ecology and usually begin to fill with silt within 20 to 50 years. Biomass, geothermal, wind and solar power make up the last 0.6 percent of global electrical energy production.39 Unfortunately, the most common use for biomass energy is for heating, not for converting to useful work.
It takes considerable land area to grow biomass, and while it may be very important in localized areas, other, more profitable uses can usually be made of the land. The big exception is forests, which provide large amounts of fuel from land areas having little other economic use. As forests grow, especially even-aged forests, they often become dense with saplings and brush, long before the trees are large enough to thin commercially for pulp or lumber. The huge forest fires the last few years in the Western U.S. testify that these dense forests can be disasters waiting to happen. Pre-commercial thinning for biomass offers a potentially economically viable means of reducing the density and lowering the potential fire hazard - as well as helping the remaining trees to grow faster in diameter, and sometimes in height. President Bush's Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, provides incentives to do just that.
Biomass is still not very competitive with fossil fuel energy production, but can sometimes be justified on the basis of other benefits. As with other fuels, biomass can release obnoxious smoke when burned in primitive apparatus. Fireplaces are particularly bad. Many mountain resorts in Colorado forbid their use. But this is not an argument against burning firewood or other biomass; it can be burned cleanly in well-designed furnaces.
Nonetheless, because of high transportation costs between harvest site and production facility and other difficulties, it is unlikely biomass production will be able to provide a major part of global energy consumption. If, for example, a coal-fired power plant uses 100 coal cars per day to produce electricity, it would require 500 to 600 of the same size railroad cars to handle the wood to produce the same amount of electricity.
Geothermal energy from the earth's natural heat has been used for thousands of years and can also be competitive. The name "geothermal" comes from two Greek words: "geo" means "Earth" and "thermal" means "heat." Hot rocks underground heat water to produce steam. Holes are drilled down to the hot region. Water is injected into the hot strata and steam comes up, purified and used to drive turbines, which drive electric generators. Geothermal power requires no fuel, produces no pollution, takes up very little space and production costs are very low. The problem is that the geologic conditions needed for the production of geothermal power are very limited and only a few places around the world qualify.
Figure 4 Price per kilowatt hour for different renewable energy sources since 1975. Source: Adapted from Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist (London, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 131.
Wind and Solar. The most highly-touted renewables, wind and solar power, together make up a inconsequential 0.05 percent of current energy production. As noted by Bjorn Lomborg, "Put simply, this low share of renewable sources in global energy production is simply a consequence of the sources not yet being competitive compared to fossil fuels."40 There is less than meets the eye in the word "yet."
Wind power is already nearly competitive with fossil fuel-generated electrical power, although it is difficult to sort out the economics for a true picture. There are installation tax credits, production tax credits, and the hidden costs of spinning reserve, as well as additional electrical charges that are passed on to willing customers.
Perhaps the principal problem with wind power is that it only works when there is wind, so it requires backup. Many places lack sufficient dependable wind or the huge land area it requires. Others lack the transmission lines to deliver their power to customers. The 100-300 foot turbines are also unsightly, kill hundreds of raptors, and thousands of other birds every year. Without some means of storing the produced energy (at enormous additional cost), the energy may not be there when a stagnant high pressure dominates a temperate region, bringing with it windless bitter cold in the winter and blistering heat in the summer.
Like wind power, solar electric power requires a huge amount of area for the solar receptors. Not only are these unsightly, but not every area has sufficient sunlight to produce consistent power or be cost effective. Storage is an absolute necessity, because solar cells work only when the sun is shining.
It is commonly - but incorrectly - argued that mass production will force the price of solar cells to drop in the same way that the prices of computers have dropped. For example, today's cheaper computers are 500 times faster, have a million times more random-access memory, and have 5000 times larger disk space, than computers of the early 1980s that cost 10 times as much. But all of that increased performance is due to miniaturization. For solar cells, miniaturization accomplishes nothing. The simple rule is that the larger area covered, the more sunlight can be intercepted and used to produce electricity.
So while both wind and solar may have niche applications, it is doubtful they will ever effectively produce more than a few percentage points of the global energy needs unless technological improvements radically increase their efficiency relative to their cost and size.
In summary, the world is not heading for a major energy crisis. We have at least 40-80 years of oil, at least 60 years of natural gas, and 230 years of coal at present rates of consumption and at current or slightly above current prices. New discoveries of oil and gas fields occur every year around the world. At $40 a barrel in 2000 dollars, which is about one-third above the current world price, shale oil and tar sands can supply oil indefinitely at current consumption. Prices averaged over $40 a barrel, even hitting $50 a barrel in the summer and fall of 2004. Once shale oil is commercially developed, it is not unreasonable to assume that new technologies will increase efficiencies, reducing the cost of production dramatically. Further, additional research is showing that increasing carbon dioxide is not likely to cause global warming and it has been proven to boost crop growth.
In total, there is enough oil to meet our total fossil energy use
for the next 5,000 years - if we are willing to pay the economic
and political costs of using shale oil. There is enough uranium for
millions of years, assuming that we use reactors that are both
inherently safe and proliferation-proof. The risk factor in long-term
storage of nuclear waste is also acceptable using state of the art
technology. Yet, to realize these benefits, nation's must encourage
creativity and initiative through freedom and free markets to increase
the efficiency of exploiting energy sources such as oil shale,
renewables and sources yet unknown. A highly bureaucratized,
international form of governance demanded by the UN version of
sustainable development will discourage, even thwart, the attainment
of these benefits, condemning the impoverished of the world to a
continued life of extreme poverty and potentially eliminating the
middle class of developed nations.
Notes and Citations
1 International Energy Outlook
- 2002. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of
Energy. DOE/EIA-0484 (March, 2002), p. 7.
http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/FTPROOT/forecasting/0484(2002).pdf, and Table 2.9 World Production of Primary Energy by Selected Country Groups (BTU), 1992-2001. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of Energy. International Energy Annual, 2001. DOE/EIA-0219(2001) March, 2003, p. 43.
2 Table 8.1 World Crude Oil
and Natural Gas Reserves, January 1, 2003. Information Administration,
U.S. Dept. of Energy.
3 Oil Reserves by Region and
Most Countries and World Total. Energy Information Administration,
U.S. Dept. of
4 U.S. Geological Survey,
World Petroleum Assessment 2000.
http://greenwood.cr.usgs.gov/energy/WorldEnergy/DDS-60. In: International Energy Outlook - 2002. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of Energy. DOE/EIA-0484(March, 2002), p. 25.
5 Taken from Table
1.3 - World Dry Natural Gas, 1980-2002. International Energy
Annual, 2002. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of
http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/international/iealf/table13.xls and Table 8.1 - World Crude Oil and Natural Gas Reserves, January, 2003. International Energy Annual, 2002. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of Energy.
6 Bjorn Lomborg. The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 127.
7 Julian Simon The Ultimate
Resource 2 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996),
8 International Energy
Outlook - 2002. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of
Energy. DOE/EIA-0484(March, 2002), p. 25.
9 Table 8.1 World Crude Oil
and Natural Gas Reserves, January 1, 2003. Information Administration,
U.S. Dept. of Energy.
10 World Undiscovered
Assessment Results Summary. U.S. Geological Survey World Petroleum
Assessment 2000. U.S. Geological Survey Digital Data Series
11 David B. Ottaway. Vast
Caspian Oil Field Discovered. Washington Post, May 16, 2000. Page
A01. Also: "Chevron: At Risk in Kazakhstan," Stratfor Intelligence,
May 10, 2001.
12 Thomas Gold, The Deep Hot Biosphere, (Springer-Verlag, New York, 1998).
13 Michael Coffman, Saviors of the Earth? The Politics and Religion of the Environmental Movement (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 1994), p. 187-188.
14 Ibid, p. 189.
15 James Craig, David Vaughan and Brian Skinner. Resources of the Earth: Origin, Use and Environmental Impact (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), p. 134. In: Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist, p. 125.
16 Forty-One percent of the energy in fossil fuels is lost in its conversion to electricity for household and commercial uses. G. Tyler Miller. Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections and Solutions (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998), p. 398. Ibid.
17 Oil Shale. Table
3.1 - Oil shale: resources, reserves and production, World Energy
Calculated by converting the total "Estimated Additional Reserves" by dividing by 7.33, the accepted conversion factor.
18 "Hydrocarbon Resources:
Future Supply And Demand," The 18th World Energy Congress,
October 2001, p. 3. World Energy Council.
19 International Energy
Outlook - 2002. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of
Energy. DOE/EIA-0484(March, 2002), p. 25.
20 James Craig, et. al., p. 159. In Bjorn Lomborg, p. 128.
21 Bjorn Lomborg, p. 128.
22 Table 3.5 - World
Apparent Consumption of Refined Oil Products, 2000. International
Energy Annual, 2002. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of
Energy, p. 59.
23 Table 1.2 - World
Petroleum Consumption, 1992-2001. Energy Information Administration,
U.S. Dept. of Energy.
24 Table F - World
Primary Energy Production (BTU), 1980-2001. International Energy
Annual, 2001. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of Energy,
pp. 203-204. Updated March, 2003.
26 "Energy use per dollar of
Gross Domestic Product, Figure 3." Annual Energy Review, Energy
Perspectives: Trends and Milestones 1948 - 2000. Energy Information
Administration, U.S. Dept of Energy.
27 Personal communication with Howard C. Hayden. Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Connecticut, May 24, 2004. Also see Howard C. Hayden. The Solar Fraud, 2nd Edition Why Solar Energy Won't Run the World, 2005.
28 James Craig, et. al., p. 164. In Bjorn Lomborg, p. 129.
29 Coal has trace amounts of radioactive compounds that are released during combustion. See: "Radioactive Elements in Coal and Fly Ash: Abundance, Forms, and Environmental Significance." U.S. Geological Survey, Fact Sheet FS-163-97. October, 1997.
30 International Energy
Annual 2000. Table 6.3 World Net Energy Generation by Type,
1999. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept of
31 Ibid. Also, Nuclear Share
in Electricity Generation. International Atomic Energy Agency, Power
Reactor Information System.
32 "The Outlook for
Nuclear Energy in a Competitive Electricity Business." Nuclear
Energy Institute. 2004.
33 International Energy
Annual, 2002. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of Energy,
34 James Craig, et. al., p. 181. In Bjorn Lomborg, p. 129.
35 Ibid, p. 170. Ibid.
36 Personal communication with Howard C. Hayden. Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Connecticut, May 24, 2004.
37 Daniel Botkin and Edward Keller, Environmental Science: Earth is a Living Planet (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998), p. 454. In: Bjorn Lomborg, p. 129.
38 International Energy
Annual 2000. Table 2.9 - World Production of Primary Energy by
Selected Country Groups (BTU), 1992-2001. Energy Information
Administration, U.S. Dept of Energy.
39 Bjorn Lomborg, p. 130.
40 Ibid, pp. 130-131. [an error occurred while processing this directive]