What's the 'Black Swan' in Energy?

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There's so much agreement here at The Atlantic's Green Intelligence Forum that it's sort of shocking, given the general rancor of the climate and energy debates right now.

It's not that people agree on the detailed, in-the-Beltway specifics, but the broad strokes seem to be settled at least among this set of people -- and those at last week's National Renewable Energy Laboratory Innovation Growth Forum. Here's the general packet of ideas:

  • Climate change is a real threat that must be dealt with. 
  • There should be a price on carbon so that polluters have to internalize its costs, thereby incentivizing clean energy production. 
  • But there will be no price on carbon in the next few years, given the political climate.
  • New natural gas extraction techniques mean that US reserves are bigger than thought -- and that means the power generation sector is going to happily switch over to gas from coal. 
  • Oil will get more expensive over the next two decades as it gets harder to find and extract, thereby making energy overall more expensive. 
  • Renewable energy will grow, but it will remain a small percentage the country's energy portfolio. 

It's not quite groupthink, but there are very significant areas of agreement about what the future holds. All of the ideas above seem plausible to me. But there's a problem. We know that in the past, our energy system and politics have been affected by surprises, geopolitical events, and unforeseen technological breakthroughs.

So, I asked my panelists, "What's the unexpected thing that no one's talking about?"

The best answer I got came from Doug May, VP of energy climate change, and alternative feedstocks at Dow Chemical. He said floated the idea that some breakthrough could occur that opens up alternative oil supplies, so that the price of oil drops over the next couple decades.

Does it seem unlikely? Sure. But I'd like to see more ideas floated and explored that seem unlikely now because we know that events rarely unfold according to the conventional wisdom of any given moment.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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