The Future of Energy: There is No Silver Bullet

Solar panels at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (Photo/U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Nadine Y. Barclay).

by Tania Tauer

The future of the U.S. energy industry was under scrutiny during a panel discussion at the University of Colorado Boulder last Tuesday, during the 64th annual Conference on World Affairs.

The need for the U.S. to formulate an alternative energy strategy in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions was a key concern for Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

The Earth has recently entered the Anthropocene era, marking a new period where human activity has begun to influence the planet’s ecosystem, said Schweiger.

Human-induced global warming has already led to devastating losses in Canada’s boreal forests and the Arctic’s glacial ice, he explained.

“We need to move very quickly to a carbon neutral [energy] strategy,” he said.

Schweiger encouraged greater investment and installation of renewable energy technologies, such as solar, wind and tidal energy. He also highlighted the importance of energy efficiency and explained that it’s possible to cut about 30 percent of energy use by being more efficient.

Douglas Ray, associate laboratory director for the fundamental and computational sciences directorate at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, agreed that improving energy efficiency is the most viable short-term plan to decrease global energy demands. However, he expanded on Schweiger’s ideas by further encouraging the development of a national carbon policy, such as a carbon cap and trade or a carbon tax system.

Pricing carbon would be a good way to transition to an energy system that is much cleaner than the one we currently have, said Ray.

While it will take decades to replace carbon dioxide-producing energy technologies, Ray urged investment in carbon capture and storage systems. Although this is not a long-term solution for curbing carbon dioxide emissions, it would provide necessary relief in the short-term while more efficient renewable energy technologies are developed, he said.

The last speaker on the panel, Sidney Perkowiz, a physics professor at Emory University and a prominent science writer, discussed his concern over the ability of nations to produce enough energy for the estimated 9 billion people that will inhabit the Earth by 2050.

Every country will have to develop a unique energy generation portfolio that will fulfill its own energy demands, he explained.

To illustrate, Perkowiz explained that the U.S. currently generates about 70 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels and 20 percent from nuclear energy, whereas France fulfills over 75 percent of its electricity demands from nuclear plants and just nine percent from fossil fuel sources. As a result, France emits a small fraction of carbon dioxide compared to the U.S.

While Perkowiz did not focus on the need to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions, he stressed the importance of developing a robust mixture of energy generation technologies to fulfill the world’s growing energy demands.

“The only possible answer is a mixture, and the mixture is going to have to be different for every society,” said Perkowitz. “The thing to get away from is that one single [source], like solar or wind or geothermal, is the whole answer.”

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