Dressed Up With No Place To Go

Here at Pacifichem, the Alternate Energy Technology topical area featured a number of sessions on improving coal technologies to curb carbon dioxide emissions and using biomass as a source of energy. I have attended quite a few conferences, workshops, and symposia during the past decade that focused on these topics. The message is always the same: We need to develop alternative technologies to generate electricity and transportation fuels as our supply of petroleum and other fossil fuels runs out, and it would be nice to curb carbon dioxide emissions to save the planet at the same time.

Based on current trends in global energy consumption, even with significant incremental technology changes–that is, business as usual–atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will still more than double by 2100 and impact global temperatures. Exactly how the planet will react is uncertain, but the prospects aren’t good.

Scientists and engineers participating in these gatherings acknowledge that there is no one solution to this future-of-energy scenario, and of the emerging technologies such as solar, wind, electric vehicles, and more, none are yet concrete nor are they affordable.  The message is: We know what has to be done, we have a pretty good idea how to do it, but no one wants to pay for it.  It’s getting to be a tiresome refrain.

The U.S. budget provides more than $1 billion annually for energy research. More than $400 million of that is dedicated to coal, which is an indicator of the reality of energy consumption–the U.S. has lots of coal and natural gas, an estimated 250 years or more supply, and we are going to use it up first and set a regulatory policy in order to do it. Coal-rich countries such as China are in the same policy boat.

It is not a bad policy, because coal is cheaper for now. It just means alternative energy technologies are not going to be adopted very quickly, and we are unlikely to do much about the cost of environmental control quickly, because no one wants to pay for it, hence the reason global agreements on carbon capture and sequestration to curb carbon dioxide emissions are languishing. We have to continue research in all areas to be able to move when the time comes, however. That is the essence of being sustainable.

But that does nothing to satisfy the need for instant gratification that today’s global society has come to expect–that one can have what they want when they want it from a blue electronic screen or by sliding a card. So it is with alternative energy technologies. It’s really an ideal that is dressed up with no place to go, and one that we might get bored with and fall asleep on. Sitting in on sessions in Honolulu in which energy officials and scientists and engineers from the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and other countries spoke, reinforced that perspective.

Author: Steve Ritter

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