05/24/2007 - 07:00

Energy efficiency alone won't work

Amory is quite correct that there are many ways to reduce energy use and retain at least the
same level of services we have now. And it is very sensible to try to adopt such means. But Amory
is always delightfully optimistic about the rates of diffusion and acceptance of new
technologies.

In the real world, when a new technology requires major changes in our manufacturing and
distribution system, it's adopted slowly. One circumstance can change that--a major crisis. When an
event such as World War I comes along, then we always find a way to implement innovation, i.e.,
airplanes!

The problem we face today is vividly exposed in a new Proceedings of the National Academy
article,
"Global and Regional Drivers of Accelerating CO2 Emissions." The authors show
that the anthropogenic carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are actually rising faster than the
highest predictions made in the late 1990s by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

We simply can't afford to pursue the adiabatic path of an optimum, equilibrium-model economy.
We're living in a dangerously dynamic situation and must pursue all the plausible paths we know. At
present, nuclear power
is more expensive than fossil fuels. But if we were to internalize the costs of fossil
fuels, instead of leaving them as externalities, we would apply taxes, "cap and trade," or some
other ingenious method to make us pay the real costs of using fossil fuels. If we do that, nuclear
power will immediately be at least as cheap as fossil-generated power. Moreover, the next
generation of light water reactors, the type of reactors that power companies are planning to build
as soon as they get licenses, will be cheaper, safer, and more reliable than the reactors we're
using now.

Just one other specific concern with Amory's idealistic vision: Whatever we do in the United
States in the coming decades to adopt more energy-efficient devices, it's hard to believe that
developing nations will go along with it. No matter what kind of micropower we invent, China will
build large electric power generating stations to supply power to its growing cities and
power-starved rural population. The future of the world will be in much less jeopardy if those
power stations use nuclear power instead of coal power.

Multiple pathways and a flexible choice of options are the keys to maximizing stability. We
can't afford to bet on only one roulette number.