In This Issue
Our Energy Future
June 1, 2002 Volume 32 Issue 2

Our Energy Future (editorial)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: George Bugliarello

The theme if this issue is energy. The problem is not that energy for our planet is in short supply. On the basis of what we know today, the world has enough coal, oil, and gas to last for centuries. And, of course, we can count on solar, wind, nuclear, and other forms of energy for billions of years. Biotechnology is another promising energy source. The problem is to ensure that energy is available where we need it (often far from its sources) at an acceptable cost and without doing irreparable damage to the environment. Regardless of where it comes from, it will require considerable resources and ingenuity to negotiate the technical hurdles. If it comes from far away, geopolitical hurdles will also have to be overcome.

The energy business is, and will continue to be, both risky and costly. It will require entrepreneurship of the highest order, which should be rewarded but also disciplined and channeled to ensure that distribution is reasonable and reliable and to avoid profiteering. One of the most difficult challenges facing a free society is striking a balance between necessary controls and a free market. In a market economy, the energy industry has demonstrated its ability to find new resources and convey them to users more effectively than state monopolies. Nevertheless, given human nature, unbridled laissez-faire can be dangerous; consider, for example, a case of food energy, as in the Irish famine, and a case of a speculative house of cards, as in the Enron collapse.

Public intervention is also essential for dealing with the externalities of health-damaging emissions and developing new energy technologies that cannot be commercially viable without incentives to encourage cost-lowering mass production. In establishing a fine balance between the free market and regulation, we must also take into account the plight of many desperately poor countries that will need inexpensive reliable energy to emerge from poverty. Public/private partnerships on a global scale will be necessary to make a fair share of Earth’s energy resources available to them.

The difficulties will be exacerbated unless we can raise the level of scientific and technological literacy, so educated citizens can assess the facts and consider the options. The issues are complex, as is clear by the conflicting positions within the scientific and engineering communities based on different assumptions. Drilling in Alaska is a high-profile example, a case of economic development versus ecological concerns. With enlightened policies, technically literate citizens, and human ingenuity, harmonizing these conflicting goals should be possible. At least, disasters caused by the reckless mining, generation, and use of energy, as in the case of the former Soviet Bloc countries, should be a thing of the past.

Energy deregulation "does not have to end in tears," as Callon McCarthy, chairman of the British Office of Gas and Electric Markets, has put it. The separation of ownership between generation and distribution makes sense, but, as we learned in California last summer, disasters can happen if companies that buy at free-market prices are forced to sell at a capped price. Deregulation can reduce costs to consumers, but it is not a panacea. We must find new sources of energy, improve the quality of performance of distribution networks, increase the efficiency of energy generation, make the use of renewable energy more cost effective, diminish geopolitical conflicts, and reduce adverse impacts on the environment.

For the foreseeable future, we must be realistic about our choices. Coal will continue to be a major source of fuel; nuclear energy is so mistrusted by the public that its use will continue to be problematic, no matter what its merits; the use of gas will increase and thereby possibly increase some international interdependencies, particularly in Europe; the American public will continue its love affair with large energy-expensive personal vehicles; emerging technologies, from fuel cells to wind and solar energy to carbon sequestration, promising as they are, will require incentives to be used on a meaningful scale and, thus, reduce global warming. And, of course, the protection of energy supplies, generating installations, and distribution systems will be an enduring concern.

Each of these facts of life will raise major engineering challenges. Engineering expertise in systems analysis, design, and risk assessment will be urgently needed to inform public policy and inject a sense of realism and possibilities in the continuing debates about our energy future.

About the Author:George Bugliarello is chancellor of Polytechnic University and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.