How Will We Fuel the Future?
At the influential TED conference last year, Bill Gates declared that if he were allowed one wish to improve humanity’s lot over the next 50 years, he would choose an “energy miracle”: a new technology that produced energy at half the price of coal with no carbon dioxide emissions. He explained that he’d rather have this wish than a new vaccine or medicine or even choose the next several American presidents. To help understand the reasoning behind Gates’s thinking, one should read Daniel Yergin’s intelligent new opus, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World.”
Yergin, the founder of a leading energy consulting firm, is the author of several acclaimed books, most notably“The Prize,” a monumental history of oil from its discovery to 1990. “The Quest” starts where “The Prize” left off, and at 804 pages it is similar in heft, but in fact a very different kind of book. “The Prize” was grand narrative history, full of characters like John D. Rockefeller and Winston Churchill and driven along by momentous events like World Wars I and II, both of which played a role in making oil the world’s pivotal energy resource.
“The Quest,” which begins with the Persian Gulf war of 1990-91 and goes up to the present, does not have the same kind of material. The world has been through interesting times since 1990, but the events and characters are less striking and too recent to make for a rich dramatic narrative. This book is really trying to answer a question: What will the future of energy look like over the next 50 years? In addressing that issue, Yergin takes on a myriad of other topical questions: Are we running out of oil? Is natural gas the answer? What about shale gas? Is global warming a real danger? Is solar power the answer? He addresses each one of these in a chapter or series of chapters that mix recent history and fair-minded analysis.
Because he tries to confront all these topics — and many more — this book lacks the drama and compulsive readability of “The Prize.” But it is an important book nonetheless, a valuable primer on the basic issues that define energy today. Yergin is careful in his analysis and never polemical. If there is a flaw, it is that he is too cautious in some of his conclusions, shying away from saying outright what his narrative implies. Despite that, “The Quest” makes it clear that energy policy is not on the right course anywhere in the world and that everyone — on the left and the right, in the developed and the developing world — needs to rethink strongly held positions.
Yergin starts by reminding us of energy’s centrality to the modern age. For most of human history, the labor of men and animals was the sole source of energy, and that placed significant limits on how much energy we could use. Starting in the late 18th and early 19th century, humans harnessed the power of steam and coal to run machines, and the result was an explosion of material abundance. In 1957 Adm. Hyman Rickover, the great engineer who is known as the father of the nuclear Navy, calculated that a century earlier, in the early years of the industrial age, 94 percent of the world’s energy was provided by the labor of men and animals. Water and fossil fuels made up the remaining 6 percent. By the 1950s, those numbers had reversed, and coal, oil and natural gas supplied 93 percent of the world’s energy. Rickover pointed out that without this energy revolution, most of the material advances of the modern age would be impossible. A car, he said, uses the energy equivalent of the labor of 2,000 men — a jet plane that of 700,000 men.
The trend of ever-increasing energy use is certain to continue. Even if the Western world becomes much, much more energy-efficient, “the rise of the rest” guarantees a massive expansion in the demand for energy. Global G.D.P. is now $65 trillion and may rise to $130 trillion in just two decades. Energy consumption may well increase 30 to 40 percent along with it. The number of cars worldwide will rise from one billion to two billion. How will we find the energy to run them?
On present course, we will find it in fossil fuels. Predictions of the end of oil have, so far, been wrong, and Yergin predicts they will continue to be wrong. Rickover’s 1957 speech, Yergin reminds us, was a warning that the world would run out of fossil fuels sometime after 2000, probably by 2050. In fact, oil production is five times greater than it was in 1957. Coal remains the central source of electricity. For all the talk of the “end of oil,” fossil fuels still make up about 80 percent of the world’s energy mix. And with natural gas, shale gas and new technologies for extraction becoming more important, fossil fuels are likely to play a central role for decades to come.
Unless we shift our ways. Burning fossil fuels has a cost — perhaps an unbearable one. We now have a mountain of evidence that the 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide that humans pump into the atmosphere every year are changing the earth’s climate in ways that will have negative effects for most people. Yergin recounts the making of the scientific consensus that has developed around global warming. His narrative makes clear that there really is no longer a serious debate in the scientific community about the basic facts of global warming, though there is uncertainty about its extent and its effects. (Some scientific studies suggest that things could turn out much worse than the “average” case.) In these chapters Yergin’s somewhat bland and noncommittal presentation is a public disservice. At a time when major presidential candidates like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas openly dismiss global warming as a hoax, experts need to speak up.
But the need for lucid thinking exists on the other side of the political spectrum as well. There tends to be a view, perhaps most prominently propagated by Al Gore, that we have — or are on the verge of having — the technologies that will make it possible to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. All that stands in the way of a green future is our cowardice. As Yergin’s book makes plain, that is simply not true. The renewable technologies that are currently being deployed are highly unlikely to provide enough reliable and cheap energy to replace fossil fuels.
Examining each technology carefully and thoroughly — wind, solar, biofuels, nuclear — he points out the difficulties of expanding their reach beyond a niche market. Solar and wind energy, for example, are still very expensive and, perhaps more crucially, intermittent. We need to store the energy they produce for when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. For that we need battery power on a different scale than we have today. Indeed, according to Bill Gates, if you take the entire world’s battery capacity — every battery everywhere — it can store just 10 minutes of the world’s current energy usage.
Nuclear energy is perhaps the most promising carbon-free technology to scale up, but it too has its problems — huge start-up costs, waste disposal and, of course, the fears of the public about nuclear accidents. The latter are largely irrational — far more people die from oil drilling and coal mining accidents every year than have died in all nuclear accidents to date — but that doesn’t change the political reality that publics everywhere are wary of nuclear power, especially in their backyard.
Politics are an inevitable part of the energy business. Government has a huge role to play because of the public costs and benefits — when you put something into the atmosphere, it affects everyone. But Yergin points out that government decision-making has often been guided by narrow political reasons rather than a broader scientific approach. The huge subsidies for ethanol are an example of government involvement that has clearly caused more harm than good. The truth is that energy is such a complicated area, with so many potential technologies and pathways, that having the government pick a few is probably not very useful. What government can do well is two things: making carbon emissions more expensive through a carbon tax and, crucially, providing much greater support for basic research into green technologies — to take a quantum leap in one or preferably many of them.
This has been a chief concern of Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, but even with the Obama administration’s stimulus money, the United States and the West in general spend abysmally small amounts on basic research while spending too much on subsidizing existing technologies.
The reason Bill Gates wishes for a technology that creates energy at half the price of coal with no carbon dioxide emissions is that he wants a technology so compelling that it is adopted by poor countries as well as rich ones. Coal is plentiful worldwide, and unless the new technology is much cheaper, China and India will never adopt it. And if these two countries — which together are building four coal-fired power plants a week — don’t get off coal, nothing that happens in the West matters, since the levels of carbon dioxide they will pump into the atmosphere will be well above the danger mark. Half the price of coal and no carbon: That’s a tall order, which is why Gates is looking for a miracle. But what he means is a technological miracle of the kind that happens from time to time. The steam engine, the automobile, the computer, the Internet are all miracles. We need something on that order in energy — and fast.