The Challenge For Renewable Energy

Posted by | April 20, 2011 13:40 | Filed under: Top Stories

by Stuart Shapiro

When thinking about solutions for climate change (and yes I am making the assumption that it is occurring — so there!), increased investment in renewable energy always is near the top of the solution list because of its political attractiveness.  Scientist Vaclav Smil tosses some water on these hopes:

Energy transitions—shifts from a dominant source (or a combination of sources) of energy to a new supply arrangement, or from a dominant prime mover to a new converter—are inherently prolonged affairs whose duration is measured in decades or generations, not in years. The latest shift of worldwide energy supply, from coal and oil to natural gas, illustrates how the gradual pace of transitions is dictated by the necessity to secure sufficient resources, to develop requisite infrastructures and to achieve competitive costs: It took natural gas about 60 years since the beginning of its commercial extraction (in the early 1870s) to reach 5 percent of the global energy market, and then another 55 years to account for 25 percent of all primary energy supply. Time spans for the United States, the pioneer of natural gas use, were shorter but still considerable: 53 years to reach 5 percent, another 31 years to get to 25 percent.

Smil talks about conservation as the only real way to cut back fossil fuel use:

The United States and Canada are the only two major economies whose average annual per capita energy use surpasses 300 gigajoules (an equivalent of nearly 8 tonnes, or more than 50 barrels, of crude oil). This is twice the average in the richest European Union (E.U.) economies (as well as in Japan)—but, obviously, Pittsburghers or Angelenos are not twice as rich, twice as healthy, twice as educated, twice as secure or twice as happy as inhabitants of Bordeaux or Berlin.

Smil acknowledges the political challenges in promoting conservation by making energy use more costly.  But his article (it is long) gives us food for thought and should be required reading for anyone interested in the issue.

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Copyright 2011 Liberaland
By: Stuart Shapiro

Stuart is a professor and the Director of the Public Policy
program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers
University. He teaches economics and cost-benefit analysis and studies
regulation in the United States at both the federal and state levels.
Prior to coming to Rutgers, Stuart worked for five years at the Office
of Management and Budget in Washington under Presidents Clinton and
George W. Bush.

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