I am surprised that The Atlantic Monthly would print an article written by U.S. Department of Energy employees advertising DOE programs: "Mideast Oil Forever?" by Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis (April Atlantic). I agree that we are "sleepwalking" into what will become a significant energy shortage by 2020. However, the reason that we can't plan ahead and make significant progress on alternative energy sources is that we as a nation insist on believing that the world is as we wish it were rather than as it actually is, so we insist that soft energy sources will be sufficient.
Let's take wind power and photovoltaic (solar) cells as examples. The authors state that with continued public-private partnership in technology advancement, wind could hit three cents per kilowatt-hour by 2020. Good grief, that's twenty-four years away! If we can travel to the moon, how is it we can't make a competitive wind-power machine? How many hundreds of millions of R&D dollars are we talking about spending on this technology in the next twenty-five years? What are we basing this prediction on--blades made of "miraculem" and superconducting generators? Maybe there is a more fundamental problem.
As for photovoltaic cells, the authors indicate that the amount of power sold worldwide has grown from four to eighty megawatts over the past sixteen years and that after 2030 sales could exceed $100 billion. To start with, eighty megawatts is nothing in the scheme of things, and the year 2030 is so far away that one can only conclude that PVs simply won't be competitive until the world goes through a severe oil shock after oil production peaks. This means that the U.S. consumer will have to suffer a significant increase in his electricity bill before solar becomes attractive. We could do this tomorrow by placing a large tax on oil, gas, and coal in accordance with their negative environmental impacts. Although this might be an appropriate action, I would rather focus on development in areas that can produce results that will not cause the cost of electricity to quadruple and the economy to go into a tailspin.
In your otherwise excellent article about renewable energy technologies we were surprised to find no mention of geothermal heating and cooling technology. This technology, by taking advantage of the earth's constant moderate temperature just below the surface, efficiently captures heat in winter and deposits it in the summer. The emerging geothermal industry creates high-skill employment, does not pollute the air, has a short payback period, incurs low operating costs compared with conventional systems, and saves energy dollars. Richard Stockton College, home of the largest closed-loop geothermal system in the world, has saved more than 25 percent annually on heating and cooling bills for its academic buildings. Geothermal is one more way to reduce oil dependency and is deserving of short-term economic nurturing by the federal as well as state governments. In fact, the DOE and the EPA have worked in partnership with the electric-utilities industry and manufacturers to promote geothermal technology, with the hope of investing $100 million to bring this technology into the mainstream by the year 2000.
In "Mideast Oil Forever?" Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis warn that congressional budget-cutters threaten to end America's leadership in new energy technologies that protect the environment and limit dependency on oil from the unstable Persian Gulf region.
Although we agree with the article that environmental protection is crucial and the risks of growing dependence on foreign oil are real, we disagree with the article's focus on renewable sources of energy as the solution. Renewables certainly have a role in America's distant energy future, but the best near-term solution for bridging energy security and environmental protection--with economic growth--is clean, economical, and abundant domestic natural gas.
Natural gas provides about 25 percent of the nation's energy needs today, while renewables contribute only seven percent. The market share for renewables cannot and will not change anytime in the next several decades, even with major increases in government funding, which are required in the Shell scenario cited in the article. Thus renewables can make very little contribution to reducing oil imports or improving the environment in our lifetime. However, the American Gas Association estimates that natural gas could replace one million barrels of imported oil a day by 2000 and two million barrels a day by 2010, given a concerted national effort to convert factories, homes, and particularly vehicles to natural gas--and would simultaneously result in environmental benefits.
To offer a balanced view of the DOE's valuable research-and-development program, the article needed to recognize the significant contributions that can be made by its natural-gas programs, which have been underfunded for years. In these times of budget constraints, the DOE should focus on research and technology that show promise for reducing oil imports in the more immediate future and offer a rapid payback for the American consumer. That means natural gas.
Michael Baly III
Searching for solutions that would allow us to continue to live in sprawling communities and rely almost solely on single-occupant automobiles simply perpetuates all the other problems that reliance on automobiles has brought us. A variety of professionals are beginning to look at different ways to build our cities, so that people can walk, bicycle, and use public transit, instead of continuing with highly wasteful land-use patterns. It is truly unfortunate that much of the rest of the world is now seeking to emulate our bad transportation-policy decisions of the past eighty years.
Alternative fuels should be seen not as the ultimate goal but as a partial fix in our search to move people without emphasizing one person, one vehicle.
Your April cover story on the coming energy crisis was worth the year's subscription price, if only for its comprehensive evaluation of how much oil and gas the world will be consuming over the next forty years.
On the supply side, though, the authors did not scratch the surface. The fact is that the earth has not had its surface really scratched at this point in the quest for liquid oil and gas. Of the 700,000 exploratory wells drilled on the planet in the past 140 years, since oil was first discovered in Pennsylvania, 95 percent were drilled in the developed world of North America and Europe, and almost 75 percent of the total in the United States--not including Alaska.
Only five percent of the total were drilled in Latin America, Asia, or Africa --which is to say that India and China will indeed be putting great demands on the world oil supply as they emerge as developing nations. But their people are sitting on vast oceans of oil and gas that have not been discovered, because there has been no exploration in these countries.
Why has there been so much exploration and discovery here? The most important reason is that Americans are the only people on earth who automatically have mineral rights to the surface property they own. Once the countries of the rest of the world begin giving their own citizens these rights, instead of hoarding them for the state, exploration will expand dramatically, and so will discovery.
We agree with Michael Baly that natural gas is going to play a key role in meeting our growing demand for energy. Natural gas is the premier hydrocarbon in our country's fossil-fuel-based energy portfolio, not only because of the efficiency and the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas, but also as part of our effort to reduce our rising national dependence on imported oil. To use Daniel Yergin's phrase, it has become the recognized "prince of hydrocarbons."