Future Challenges: Beyond the Energy Crisis

poster-Energy-Sep 08The global economy, geopolitics, technological innovation and security are all issues that will come into play as the world transitions from energy produced largely by oil to other, less polluting sources over the next 50 to 100 years, according to a panel of Boston University energy experts.

The three experts – Professor Cutler Cleveland of the Department of Geography and the Environment, Professor Uday Pal of the Division of Materials Science and Engineering and Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Moeed Yusuf, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science and a Fredrick S. Pardee Graduate Fellow – spoke before a crowd of 45 people during the first Pardee House Seminar of the new academic year on September 22. The seminar, titled Beyond the Energy Crisis, was part of the “Future Challenges” seminar series sponsored by the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future. This session was co-sponsored by BU’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies and the Clean Energy and Environmental Sustainability Initiative. The panel was moderated by BU Pardee Center Director, Prof. Adil Najam.

While the world moved from wood-based energy to increased reliance on fossil fuels during the industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that transition was not specifically planned and occurred in large part to keep up with the increasing new demand created by economic expansion. By contrast, according to Professor Cleveland, what we face now is a transition away from oil and other fossil fuels that must be specifically engineered and that will need to replace “a staggering amount” of existing energy demand as well as meet rapidly growing energy use in India, China and other growing economies.

“This transition, unlike last, has to be engineered,” he said. “And the limits of the market suggests that there needs to be policy intervention.” He said that every potential non-carbon based energy option – including nuclear power and carbon sequestration as well as solar and other alternatives – should be explored to determine cost and feasibility.

He said government policies, including taxes to encourage demand-side management – which he characterized as “the third rail of energy politics” – and changes in land use that allow and encourage people to live close to where they work also need to be part of the solution.

Professor Pal cited the large role that technological innovation will play in moving economies away from dependence on oil. He noted that 85 percent of the world’s energy now is generated by fossil fuels including oil, coal and natural gas in roughly equal amounts. As long as that is the case, he said, levels of carbon dioxide emissions – the major greenhouse gas contributing to global climate change – will continue to rise.

He said the transition away from oil dependence will have to include technical innovations that create more efficient means of using energy for every unit generated to reduce carbon emissions. Pal also said fossil fuels – especially coal and natural gas, which are plentiful and comparatively inexpensive –will continue to be large sources of energy for the next several decades while we continue to work on the technology that will make alternatives such as fuel cells, solar, wind and tidal energy widely available and affordable on the massive scale required to meet current demand.

Considering the potential for nuclear energy to play a larger role in the future of energy, Yusuf said it seems unlikely that it will become a significant new source of energy because of economic, technology and security concerns. Since no new nuclear plants have been built in more than 20 years, it is very difficult to tell with any accuracy how much building such plants will now cost, he said, adding that past nuclear plant construction was characterized by huge cost-overruns and significant delays making potential future investors wary. In addition, only six countries – the U.S. and five eastern countries — currently have the technical capability of building and operating nuclear plants while many thousands of new plants would be required to help meet current energy demand.

The accidents at the Three Mile Island plant in the U.S.and the Chernobyl plant in Russia have made safety a major issue, influencing public perception about the risks of nuclear power as well as the potential costs, as stringent safety measures also increase the costs, Yusuf said.

But the biggest issue facing nuclear power is the security issue, Yusuf said. The threat of nuclear weapons proliferation is a paramount concern causing countries to worry about who has nuclear energy capability, thrusting nuclear power more than other energy options into the realm of geopolitics.

All three experts agreed that the transition away from oil to other sources of energy will take many years and a commitment by world leaders and citizens to make and accept some short-term sacrifices in exchange for longer-term benefits.

This article first appeared in the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future on September 22, 2008.

Also see this report of the event in the Daily Free Press.

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