Energy company executives, environmentalists and academics gathered at Rice University in Houston this week to discuss the challenges ahead for meeting energy demand while at the same time reducing pollution. None of the scenarios described are ideal.
The consensus reached in the report U.S. Energy Scenarios for the 21st Century is that humankind will have to make a concerted effort to avoid both energy shortages and the climate change many scientists believe is caused by burning fossil fuels. The report, prepared for the Washington-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change, explores three possible scenarios for the next 30 years.
One scenario assumes an abundance of oil and gas, meaning cheaper energy, but worse pollution. The second scenario involves breakthroughs in technology that provide more alternative energy, thereby providing for continued economic growth and reduced emissions. The third scenario, however, is grim. In this scenario, energy supply disruptions and security threats lead to a turbulent, chaotic world.
Pew Center on Global Climate Change President Eileen Claussen says participants in the workshop that produced the scenarios agreed that, even under the best scenario, that of rapid technological advances, there would be no silver bullet. That is, there is no single solution that would both provide sufficient energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to acceptable levels.
“You need everything,” said Ms. Claussen. “You need natural gas. You need to see hybrid, electric and diesel vehicles in the short and medium term. You need to see hydrogen and fuel cell cars in the long term. You need nuclear power. We are not going to be able to do away with it and still get down to those levels. Because we are still going to be burning coal in 2035, we are going to have to deal with the carbon emissions and so you are going to need carbon capture and geological sequestration.”
Even though the United States is not part of the Kyoto agreement to reduce global warming, Ms. Claussen noted 141 other nations are. She also notes that more than 20 states have already adopted their own climate change policies with programs to encourage use of alternative fuels. She says development of a federal policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is only a matter of time and that energy companies should be part of that future.
“We have to start preparing,” she added. “Companies have to start thinking about how to do this. They have to start figuring out how to engage in this debate so that we end up with the smartest policies, chosen early, with the least impacts later. We may never have any scenario going out to 2035 like the ones we have here, but I think these things are pretty clear. We are going to end up in some kind of situation where there will be a mandatory climate policy. It is in your interest and in everybody's interest to start working on it now.”
Andrew Slaughter, an economist with the Shell Oil Company, says Shell has already begun working on renewable energy research with an eye toward its own potential stake in what could become a lucrative market.
“Our own business, our own company has been around for 100 years and we want to be around for another 100 years or more, so we want to be a part of whatever energy mix or energy markets exist at that time. So we have an interest in terms of our own sustainability,” he said.
One of the cleanest and most efficient sources of energy is also one of the most controversial, nuclear power. Helen Howes, Vice President for Environment, Health and Safety at Exelon, a U.S. electrical power company, says new technology could allow the design of nuclear plants that have safety and security as top priorities. But, she says, it may take some time before these plants are a reality.
“Are we looking to build something today? Absolutely, unequivocally no, we are not looking to build something today, for two reasons: One, we know that unless the nuclear waste issue is dealt with there will be no new generation of nuclear plants. Secondly, we must have a continuing excellent operating and safety record for the next generation to be built. So those are two preconditions. I think the third one is the more significant one and that is the cost of new nuclear,” she explained.
Ms. Howe says the costs of building, operating and maintaining such plants may make the power they produce more expensive than that supplied by coal-burning plants.
Forum participants also discussed the need to encourage China and other fast-growing nations to adopt cleaner energy policies early on. China is now the third largest market in the world for motor vehicles, just behind the United States and the European Union. As one participant put it, if China demands large, inefficient gasoline-guzzling vehicles of the type often seen on U.S. roads, it will make it hard to reduce harmful pollution levels worldwide. It also will make it harder for China to move to more efficient vehicles later.