Energy has been the fulcrum of global politics, economics, and environment for decades. Its role is intensifying now. Oil prices are rising due to the Asian economic boom, leading to new wealth in Russia, the Persian Gulf, and, at long last, Africa. Oil and gas are located in some politically unstable regions, and causing some regions to become more unstable. Rising prices have also led to a scramble for oil and gas by India and China, and ominously for “energy security.”

Coal and oil are the main sources of global warming. The current system of energy production and consumption is many times more destructive than it could be with modest global effort.

There have been minor steps toward international political cooperation on energy issues. But national energy interests are remarkably diverse and asymmetrical. There is no agreement on the norms of sacrifice among states of unequal development after imperialism. Plans that require sacrifices that are considered asymmetrical by different parties do not have a good track record. There is little prospect of international political cooperation eliciting major national sacrifices by any state to solve any energy-related problem, including global warming.

The only hope of avoiding multiple energy-related global disasters is market-driven and state-catalyzed technological innovation.

The one great piece of news is that fossil fuel prices have risen. There is therefore a great deal of technological ferment, both in saving energy and generating it in new and better ways. There is worldwide progress in nuclear, solar, wind, and biofuel energy.

There is great scope for more efficient lighting. A switch from incandescent bulbs to fluorescent and LED lighting would save a tenth of global electricity.

There is, of course, a lot of scope for energy savings if Americans were to move around in smaller vehicles.

The Indian nuclear program has made progress in a new technology that helps it overcome the uranium blockade. Fast breeder reactors would produce more nuclear fuel than they use, yield about 60 times the electricity from the same uranium as existing reactors, and leave a fraction of the radioactive waste. States that signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty have access to the world’s vast uranium resources, but India as yet does not. An experimental fast breeder has been functioning for two decades, and a more technologically challenging commercial reactor is under construction. Construction of an experimental reactor to draw from India’s vast thorium resources is scheduled to start this year. India has kept the breeder technology out of the purview of negotiations with America about ending the uranium blockade, and the technology has strengthened India’s bargaining position. There is a revival of worldwide interest in nuclear energy.

India’s first solar panel factory, using technology similar to that for making computer chips, has begun shipping to customers. Silicon Valley companies like Nanosolar and Applied Materials are leaders in this field. The cost of electricity from semiconductor solar panels is declining. It may be overoptimistic to expect a replication of the cost decline in computer chips, but there should be a long-term decline. Wind power is already competitive and progressing in several countries. The United States has a reasonable expectation of generating a fifth of its electricity from wind by 2030. Ocean tides and currents, temperature differences among ocean depths, and hot rock 3 to10 kilometers underground could also provide a large part of the world’s electricity.

The best existing biofuel technology is ethanol from sugarcane. In Brazil, it accounts for 20 percent of fuel consumption, and is cheaper per mile than gasoline. Sugarcane gives far greater environmental benefit than corn as a biofuel feedstock. Brazil is the most advanced nation by far in this technology. India is now growing more sugar than it eats, and is moving to use the surplus as ethanol. America is looking for ways to make the most of Brazilian ethanol. President Bush made ethanol the focus of his trip to Brazil. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil focused on sugarcane ethanol during his recent visit to India. Jatropha, a plant with oil-rich seeds that grows in dry areas, also holds great promise for poorer regions in India and Africa.

The next leap is cellulosic ethanol. This involves the transformation of a wide variety of plants, in their entirety, into ethanol. It would bring a massive diversification of the sources of biofuel. Vinod Khosla, a founder of Sun Microsystems and now a venture capitalist in alternative energy, predicts that cellulosic ethanol will match conventional ethanol in cost in two years due to rapid advances. The U.S. government has announced $385 million in subsidies for six cellulosic ethanol companies.

Overall, it is reasonable to be optimistic that innovation in new energy sources will continue. Nations reliant on oil and gas exports have about 20 years to find other ways of making money.

There is a viewpoint that technology will inevitably fail, and enormous sacrifices in energy conservation will be required. The alternative view is that the earth is awash with energy; human beings need only to be smart enough to tap it properly. Energy conservation is a partial and transitional response for the moment. While there are many ways to save energy with minimum sacrifice, there is no justification at present for steps that would slow economic development in poorer countries, or even substantially reduce enjoyment in the richer countries.

The world now has a much larger cadre of scientists and engineers exploring commercially viable energy technology. It is humanity’s good fortune (not entirely deserved) that clean is cheap.

Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.

 

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