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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.

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You might say the US path has been gadgets: What if, for example, you could store electricity in paper? What if you could fold that paper up like origami and stuff it inside your iPhone, Segway, or Tesla automobile? For the first time ever, batteries would no longer be the albatross around the neck of every electronic device on the planet.

Today's outlook is in some ways brighter than it was 30 years ago. Technology has pushed the price of solar power lower than it was in 1980 – making it more viable. Wind turbines have increased eightfold in size, increasing the energy that they harvest per acre of land. Dozens of incipient technologies that didn't exist in 1980 now wait in the wings: nanocomposite paper that could provide batteries 1/10th as light as lithium ones; lightweight carbon fiber auto bodies that could double fuel-efficiency; and schemes for trickling electricity through compost to produce hydrogen gas.

Most of these technologies will fizzle; a handful will succeed and help propel the energy sector decades from now. Fast-tracking these technologies to the market (as well as wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewables) will depend on subsidies – whether they come in the direct form of rebates and tax breaks, or the indirect form of pricing energy according to carbon output. It will require getting past the popular narrative that our energy market has, until now, been laissez-faire.

"Oil never survived on the market independent of government support," points out Martin Melosi, an energy historian and colleague of Pratt's at the University of Houston. "Tax breaks, favorable land deals, limited antipollution legislation – all of those things favored oil production."

Incentives for renewable energy will need to be based more on rational science than on the Iowa Caucuses. A study published last year by the Environmental Law Institute suggests that from 2002 to 2008, 58 percent of US subsidies for renewable energy went to corn ethanol alone; many of those dollars would be better spent on technologies with greater potential.

"There's a lot of attention being paid to turkeys that are running around posing as solutions," says Davis. "We really need to consider things that are going to take 10, 20, 30 percent out of the problem."

Even as we conserve energy, we'll continue finding new ways to use more of it – just as we have for the past 2,000 years. Computers may now consume up to 100 times more energy than they did in 1970; worldwide energy consumption by data centers like the ones run by Google is doubling every five years as they become more intertwined with the basic sustenance of modern civilization. No one can say what the next energy-intensive industry will be. Or how quickly population will rise. Or how soon the billions of souls in Asia, Africa, and South America will adopt energy-intensive, Western lifestyles.

One thing is certain – all energy on Earth derives from a deceptively small number of sources: sunlight that drives winds, ocean currents, and the photosynthesis that leads to fossil fuels; radioactive elements that heat the Earth's interior and fuel nuclear power; and the inertia of celestial orbits that drives tides.

Some of that energy is easy to harvest – such as oil, the photosynthesis of millions of years condensed into a viscous liquid. Some of it will be more difficult – such as winds circling Antarctica hundreds of miles offshore.

We'll inevitably find ways to harvest more energy as our needs increase. But in a way, energy will always be scarce.