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New energy: climate change and sustainability shape a new era

A new energy revolution – similar to shifts from wood to coal to oil – is inevitable as climate change and oil scarcity drive a global search for sustainability in power production. But even the promise of renewable energy holds drawbacks.

By / Correspondent / November 8, 2010

New energy: climate change and sustainability will shape a new era in which renewable sources such as solar power will ultimately replace oil. A solarplant near Seville, Spain uses mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays onto towers where they produce steam to drive a turbine, producing electricity.

Marcelo del Poso/Reuters

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San Francisco

"Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you," a somber President Jimmy Carter said gravely into a television camera on an April night in 1977.

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A series of oil embargoes and OPEC price hikes had hit the nation hard. Gasoline prices had tripled. Auto-dependent Americans had sometimes waited hours in line to buy the gasoline needed to get to work. The president, in an iconic fireside chat – in a beige cardigan – two months earlier had congenially urged Americans to turn thermostats down to 65 degrees F. by day, 55 by night.

But on this night, he ratcheted up his tone: Warning of an imminent "national catastrophe" and scolding Americans for selfish wastefulness, the president declared it time for Americans to curb consumption of oil, which he said had doubled in the 1950s and again in the '60s – time to end their dependence on imports.

"This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war," he said.

Mr. Carter created the Department of Energy. He called for energy conservation and increased production of coal and solar power. He installed solar panels on the White House.

But his vision – to push America and the world into a new energy era as significant as the shift from wood to coal that fueled the Industrial Revolution – never materialized.

Gasoline prices plummeted in the 1980s, removing the incentive to end oil imports. Driving returned to precrisis levels. Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, withdrew funding for renewable energies. And the White House solar panels were torn down.

While experts in the late 1970s believed that America would derive 30 to 50 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2005, it didn't happen. Renewables, other than hydroelectric, now make up about 4 percent of the energy that Americans consume.

As Americans come to grips with current energy problems – this time with climate change as the looming threat – it's also a good time for perspective. Over the past 200 years, the world has seen about a dozen major transitions in how it obtains or uses energy. Looking back at those transitions provides some surprising hints about how the next 50 years will unfold. Our energy future will look very different from what most people imagine.

Energy revolutions have usually been slow, starchy, conservative affairs, not overnight explosions; and the next one promises to be, too – never before has humanity replaced 15 trillion watts of worldwide energy production. Our success in making it happen quickly enough to stave off climate change will depend every bit as much on strategic use of fossil fuels now as it does on flashy new technologies in the future.

The steep growth in technology, population, and wealth over the past 150 years was propelled by fossil fuels – and this could probably have happened only once in history. The fuels that were combusted over a matter of decades took much of Earth's lifetime to accumulate. The Huqf oil formation in southern Oman is up to 700 million years old; it coalesced from plankton that settled on the ocean floor before the first primitive swimming, burrowing animals appeared on Earth. These fuels are being consumed 100,000 times faster than they formed.

On the upside, we humans are getting more out of our fuels. Due to increasingly efficient engines, ovens, and generators, we now derive four times as much useful heat, electricity, and mechanical thrust from every ounce of fuel that we burn compared with the late 1800s. But our demand has exploded. We now burn 20 times as much fossil fuel as we did in the late 1800s: the work that fossil fuels do for us has increased 80-fold in a little more than a century.

Replacing that energy is doable. But coming up with a realistic approach will require taking into account some facts that usually go unsaid.