Energy trumps technology as we face the future
- March 29, 2011
Ask almost anyone about big changes over the past couple of generations, and technology is sure to make their short list. Technology has visibly and dramatically changed how we communicate, work and play.
But, what about energy? While less visible than technology, energy powers our daily lives in ways that were completely unforeseen a few decades ago. With the exception of gasoline prices, energy’s impact on daily life is largely taken for granted. We simply expect that the lights will come on with the flick of a switch.
It’s not that way everywhere in the world. In fact, much of the developing world does not enjoy the same abundance of energy that we take for granted.
Here’s the rub: The rest of the world wants more energy and is growing fast in its use. One-quarter to one-third of the world’s households currently lack electricity. Prosperity in the United States depends to a large degree on growth in worldwide standards of living, which inherently leads to more energy consumption.
Like most large problems, energy is a global issue. Energy also is an international commodity. France supplies nuclear energy to Germany. Oil companies operate around the world. Closer to home, coal is Virginia’s second largest export.
As popular as energy independence for the United States may be with the public at large, the fact remains that energy prices always will be subject to changes in global supply and demand. Thinking otherwise leads to national isolation. History and basic economics have proved protectionism to be harmful.
There are many reasons to develop alternative energy sources. The mention of coal in a previous paragraph likely brings a shudder to the more environmentally sensitive. Nevertheless, fossil fuels are the de facto mainstay of the world’s energy supply. Increasing global demand, especially in developing countries, will do little to change the lopsided niche supply of renewables.
The energy debate is fraught with conflicting interests. Wind power farms in the Midwest sound good to those in other states, that is until the need for power lines creeps into someone’s backyard.
There is staunch opposition to mountaintop removal from many who don’t live in the mountains, while many who do live there welcome the jobs that mining companies provide.
Nuclear sources supply roughly one-third of Virginia’s electricity. There are 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S., including four here. Virtually all reactors in the U.S. will be relicensed for an additional 20 years past their original licensing period, and then they will need to be replaced. The aging fleet of U.S. reactors cannot operate safely for unlimited periods of time.
The Gulf oil spill, flooded coal mines in Australia, turmoil in the Mideast and North Africa, and nuclear facilities rendered unstable by the Japanese tsunami all make energy supply an urgent topic of public interest.
Much like repairing our nation’s bridges and highways, the development of new energy supplies is slowed by two factors: money and time. We need big investments in both conventional and alternative energy supplies, and we need them sooner rather than later.
There is no doubt that energy costs will continue to rise, but the cost of delaying such actions runs the risk of significant shortages that will make our problems far worse.
I often wonder whether technology and the speed of information now make it less likely that democracy can stay abreast of the need for change. It is quite possible that partisanship and special-interest groups, as well as fractious battles over land use, safety and the environment, are rendering us less efficient.
Virginia has much to gain from investing in a multitude of energy-related initiatives. We have the research and commercialization capabilities, as well as the natural resources to be leaders in the new energy economy.
Technology has been a highly visible agent of change over the past few decades. Energy is the new frontier. The world economy will require it.