What Kind of Energy Sources Do We Want?

© Brian O'Leary, Ph.D., May 2003

*It's a matter of debate. But at the very least they must be reliable, cheap, clean, safe, decentralized and publicly transparent. We must transform our institutions to facilitate the transition of energy technology into the 21st Century rather than back to the 19th and 20th Centuries. The old ways won't work anymore.*

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that no existing energy technology held credible by the mainstream can offer a solution that is even close to satisfying the criteria we need to meet the global demand for energy that is compatible with our survival. Only innovation can provide the answer.

We must therefore take responsibility for what kind of energy sources and how much of each we want to have in the future. We cannot continue indefinitely with fossil fuels and nuclear energy. And we must consider all ramifications of the full range of alternatives, known and unknown, of which the popular culture is still mostly ignorant. We have some important choices to make and we don't want them to be imposed on us out of the self-interest of elite organizations. We need to become educated about the issues, about all the possibilities that await us if we only give them a look.

The New Energy Movement will facilitate a broad dialogue to ensure the timely deployment of those energy sources that meet commonly agreed-upon criteria for the global public good. Like ordering food from a menu, we could order the mix with the best prospects for a clean and sustainable energy future.

We will pass our recommendations on to global leaders. We'd like to hear your voice.

Let us look at the criteria for a sane energy future in more detail. Our technology assessments will rate the most promising energy systems within each criterion. Basically, we want to make new energy systems that are:

  1. Feasible. Edison tried thousands of times before he got it. We need all the engineering support we can get to transform the early experiments into reliable and dependable reality. Supporting the R&D from altruism and public awareness will be important to the process. We cannot expect the Wright Brothers to deliver a Boeing. But we can focus on technologies that could give us simplicity, operational reliability, timely energy delivery, long lifetime of use, and potential for scaling up or down.
  2. Cheap. What are the capital and operational costs of the device? How soon and for how much can it be manufactured in the billions for global use? Is this ecologically supportable? How can we economically transform ourselves to a new culture of inexpensive energy while creating new jobs to clean the planet?
  3. Clean. This is probably the most important consideration of all: What are the full life-cycle environmental costs of a given system? Operationally, we believe we can develop sources that can deliver zero emissions globally by 2020 if we do the necessary R&D very soon. Just as important are other environmental impacts such as, how energy- and materials-intensive is the source? Is there waste material generated? How much manufacturing or growing is needed? How much land is used? What are the aesthetic implications? Do we need more power grids, power plants, refineries, solar farms, windmills, hydroelectric, biomass and hydrogen generators and storage facilities? We will need a detailed study of these three criteria of feasibility, low cost and environmental impact in our strategy for developing a sensible energy future.
  4. Safe. We must find ways to avoid any weapons use or overuse of new energy. In an age of terrorism and polarization, we do not want to see this technology be abused as in the nuclear story. So this means designing fail-safe systems that could deliver only so much power. Many environmentalists justifiably fear even bigger, noisier appliances, power saws, personal helicopters, etc. that would pollute the environment ever more. This development requires from the outset public transparency, acceptability and regulation of new energy technologies by the public (Criterion #6, below). Is all this possible? We won't know unless we try.
  5. Decentralized. Some of us believe that future energy sources can be localized by a selection and blend of low and high technologies. There is no reason why, in the long run, electricity must be brought in through antiquated grid wires or generated through large central station power plants, whether they be fuelled by hydrocarbons or carbohydrates or hydrogen or uranium or hydroelectric by any other source. There is also no reason to have to believe we need to rely on fossil fuels--and later on, biofuels and hydrogen, at depots for future transportation and heating and cooling of buildings, to the exclusion of direct new energy usage. We can be smarter than the conventional wisdom dictates in producing sensibly decentralized new energy infrastructures.
  6. Publicly Transparent. In the absence of public awareness, oversight and regulation of global energy policies, we will surely continue to remain far off the path towards a sustainable future. This might be hard for vested interests to accept, but will become apparent to those of us with no prejudice as to which technologies will best serve the public interest and when. This means almost all of us, once we realize that the unwise choices of the past and present have been dictated by elite special interests. To alleviate this disconnection, the New Energy Movement will assess the technologies, educate, and create public dialogue as we confront the choices ahead. We must create scenarios for the orderly transition from a polluting to a new energy economy.

This is just the beginning of a dialogue on selecting from the menu of options addressing the burning question, What do I want in a future energy policy? A feast of possibility awaits us. Do we have the courage to explore, to choose, to overcome tyranny, and to enjoy the fruits of the effort? In this journey we need to be intelligent and wise in selecting the best course for us and for Mother Earth.


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