THE BEDROCK reality of the energy sector is that we want the product to be as cheap as possible. Arguably to this day, price is the overriding priority for the vast majority of Americans. For all the talk of renewable, sustainable, clean sources of power, the overwhelming majority of our energy needs are still met by the cheapest fossil fuel that can do the job. The explanation is quite simple: energy is the lifeblood of civilization. Energy prices affect the cost of everything from the food you buy at the supermarket to your trip home for the holidays, and people seldom appreciate how deep the connection runs.
Cost is closely linked to another concept of some importance: technology. Technology determines whether it is chemically, physically, and mechanically possible for an energy source to be converted into a usable form. Before the invention of the combustion engine, oil had far less use than it currently does. Incredible source of energy though it was, mankind’s mechanical knowledge had not evolved to a point that allowed us to harness that fuel source to its full potential. The same could currently be said for the sun, which bathes our planet with more energy in one hour than the planet consumes in a year. So long as we lack the technology to adequately harness this energy, rebuilding our society around solar energy would be akin to investing enormous resources to drill oil before we had cars that could use it.
Probably the second prevailing concern about our energy after cost is whether or not the source is consistent, which is to say reliable in a day-to-day sense. Solar and wind are particularly fallible on this point, due to their reliance on certain weather conditions. Battery technology is currently too primitive to store enough energy to guarantee that our cities would stay powered for extended periods of cloudiness and slow wind.
Consistent supply of fossil fuels is not always a given either, though. Over the past six decades, the United States has devoted enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources into stabilizing foreign energy resources. Our efforts have not always been pretty either, between wars, CIA-led coups, and propping up pro-Western dictators in the Middle-East. It is simply impossible to underestimate how much energy security has affected and continues to affect American foreign policy. It is widely believed that our interests would be well served by having an energy portfolio that relies as little as possible (ideally not at all) on imports from these volatile states.
While those two points cover short-term and medium-term energy reliability, long-term energy supplies fall under the umbrella of sustainability. The question of whether our fuel and energy sources are abundant enough to rely on in the years to come is a hotly debated one. Some say no, the rate at which we consume fossil fuels greatly exceeds the rate at which they are naturally generated. With all that is known about the natural production of fossil fuels, this is probably the case. The key question, with respect to diminishing fossil fuel supplies, is when it will start dramatically affecting the energy sector.
Typically the topic of least concern is how clean an energy source is for the environment and our communities. On this category, fossil fuels score poorly. Whether it’s offshore oil, Canadian tar-sands, coal, or natural gas, extraction of fossil fuels is dirty and risky. When operations go wrong, entire ecosystems can be threatened, and in some cases communities are at risk of toxic exposure. Combustion of fossil fuels releases pollutants into the atmosphere which have a range of health and environmental implications. Generally speaking, without such pollution people and the ecosystems around us would be dramatically better off. Environmental fallout is not unique to fossil fuels though. Hydroelectric projects can be very disruptive to aquatic wildlife, and wind turbines have harmful impacts of their own.
The issue exerting the most pressure on the status quo of America’s energy policy is also the most controversial. Climate change. Most are familiar with the premise: carbon dioxide, the chemical byproduct of burning fossil fuels, allegedly contributes to a planet-wide greenhouse gas effect. One group believes this phenomenon will force a climate change that will throw the ecological order out of balance, with potentially catastrophic consequences. If one accepts climate change as a threat that must be avoided, reducing carbon dioxide emissions becomes a top priority. Several possible strategies exist for meeting that objective, but it’s a trickier task than most people imagine.
In the end, no one can claim to have a sensible solution to our energy problems without grasping the complexities related to all these issue areas. A strategy that produces the best short, medium, and long-term outcomes for the country cannot be informed by limiting one’s perspective to one specific strength (such as cost, or sustainability). The single most important task is for the public at large, however, is to resolve the issue of climate change once and for all. Disagreement on the long-term viability of fossil fuels is simply a non-starter for effective policy-making. Setting climate-energy policy by the prevailing political consensus (when there is a fundamental disagreement) is at best wasteful and at worst catastrophic.