Monday, March 14, 2011

Disasters Put Harsh Light On America's Energy Choices

The last 12 months have seen extraordinary events in energy like the BP Gulf oil disaster, the Fukushima nuclear emergency, the revolutions sweeping through the oil fields of North Africa and the Middle east, and the declining price of natural gas in North America.  Despite the stakes in energy, our collective national understanding of energy choices and tradeoffs of making one choice or another deserves and "F." 

Perhaps our ignorance explains the disastrous, byzantine, incoherent energy policies of the last 40 or more years.  We are indeed putty in the hands of the special interests.

America today gets about 45% of its electricity from coal, 24% from natural gas, 20% from nuclear power, 6% from hydro facilities, 4% from all other renewable sources, and less than 1% from oil.  Oil is close to zero and that is a major change from 1973 when oil was a major source of electric power. 

Coal has declined from 52% in 2000 to 45% now.  Natural gas has increased from 12% of electric power in 1990 to 16% in 2000 and 24% now.  Wind has jumped from next to nothing a decade ago to close to 2% of power today.

Where oil dominates is in the transportation sector where it provides about 90% of our fuel, with ethanol and biodiesel providing most of the rest.  There are just 120,000 natural gas vehicles in America, even though fueling a natural gas car today costs the equivalent of $1.40 per gallon.

Since burning oil makes so little of our electricity, more solar, wind, coal, gas, nuclear electricity will do next to nothing to reduce America's oil consumption and foreign oil imports.  Nada. 

But so often I see a policy-maker talking about more nuclear or more of some electric power technology to cut foreign oil imports.  Yesterday it was Senator Schumer talking about the supposed link between nuclear power and oil imports.  Many others point to this supposed link,  a  phantom connection.  It does not exist. Yet leaders keep talking about building lots of new nuclear plants or solar facilities or some electric power technology to diminish our dependence on foreign oil.

The  illiteracy about our energy choices and their impacts on our health, environment, security, and economy is striking and seemingly impervious to huge loads of ink.

Possibly a silver lining in the BP Gulf oil disaster and Fukushima nuclear emergency might be a heightened interest in learning more about our energy choices, the tradeoffs involved, and then being honest about them.

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