A common complaint courted by consumers opposing energy reform is a refusal to ‘go back into the dark ages in order to save the environment’. Ironically, though, the need for energy reform is not ultimately about saving the environment, but rather it is actually about preserving the standard of living that many of us are fortunate to enjoy today. The bottom line is that because fossil fuels (which exist in a finite quantity) supply 84% of our current energy portfolio, if systematic and aggressive reform to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels does not occur soon, daily lives in the not so distant future will closely resemble those of our great, great grandparents whether we like it or not.
Our love affair with coal began in the 1880’s when it surpassed wood as the primary fuel for energy. Coal remained the dominant fuel until around World War II, when petroleum and natural gas began their ascent into our psyche. In fact, as an EIA report notes when discussing the “alpine” rate of petroleum and natural gas consumption during the last half of the 20th Century, “Neither before nor since has any source of energy become so dominant so quickly.” Thus, while only a small percentage of the population alive today can recall life before our addiction to petroleum and natural gas, it is increasingly clear that at some point in the future only a similarly small contingent will be able to recall what life was like when those fuels were widely available and consumed with reckless abandon.
So when do we run out? The answer is not entirely clear and depends largely on the rate that we continue to consume those fuels. With regard to coal, the fossil fuel with the greatest projected availability, it is widely believed that a 200 to 250 year supply remains in the U.S.; however, that it is not a long time when you consider the following caveats. First, coal really only came into the picture about 160 years ago, or about since my great, great grandparents were born. Our demand for coal peaked about the time my grandparents were born and then more or less remained stable until the mid 1970’s. But since then, our demand for coal has risen steadily each year, and is now double what it was for most of the last century. Second, in addition to domestic use, the U.S. exports a tremendous amount of coal which represents nearly 40% of all U.S. energy exports; thus, not all of the U.S. supply is slated for its citizens. And third, reduction in production from the historical coal mines in the Appalachian Mountains has already occurred, which signifies a reality that was unfathomable two generations ago as well as underscores that the supply, no matter how bountiful it seems today, will not last forever. Boasts of abundant coal in Wyoming and other western states preached today are no different than the perception of bottomless Appalachian coal mines in the 1880’s, except that today the consumption rate is much faster.
So what do we do? Can renewable energy sources sustain our voracious appetites?
The optimistic answer is yes, if for no other reason than because logic dictates that they will have to. As noted by the EIA, “Many energy experts believe that the age of fossil fuels is only an interlude between pre- and post-industrial eras dominated by the use of renewable energy.” Reduction in consumption rates is a critical first step, but it is not the only answer because the consumer population will almost certainly continue to grow over time. Therefore, as that population and its associated energy demand develop, the second most important step is to meet those energy demands using responsible solutions. Because of emphasis on the importance of renewable energy technologies and directed efforts (including government subsidies) to implement them, renewable energy now supplies almost as much energy for U.S. needs in (7.2% in 2008) as does nuclear energy (8.5% in 2008). However, it should also be noted that 87% of that renewable energy was provided by hydro-electric and biomass power, with solar and wind power, the iconic symbols of renewable energy representing just 1% and 7%, respectively.
As we transition away from fossil fuels we will likely see a greater reliance on nuclear power, at least as a crutch in the short-term. And I stress short-term reliance on nuclear power because whether you think nuclear energy is awesome or an accident waiting to happen, nuclear fuel does not exist in an infinite supply and is therefore not a true renewable resource either. Thus, ultimately the issue is not about whether or not renewable energy will be able to meet our demands in the future, but rather if the transition away from non-renewable resources will be orderly or chaotic. The answer lies with the popular will of the people. History documents that wills dictate ways, so perhaps the only question that really needs to be asked is, “will you be a part of the solution?”