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All energy resources are finite, including the sun. However, since the sun still has a few billion years of fuel left, it will last longer than humankind. See Natural History for why.

Petroleum is distributed non-uniformly on earth, like timber, coal and ore reserves for metals. The Middle East and Eastern Europe have disproportionate shares of petroleum. Modernization inherently requires fuel, lots of it. That feature carries with it competition for supplies. And the big guys have been winning many of those battles. Petroleum is the real reason we are in Iraq. If we were there to chase a bad man, then how do we explain the fact that we ignore equally bad men elsewhere? It is all about oil; big oil, and the likes of Halliburton and EXXON.

For background, we have two broad approaches to meeting the energy needs of humanity, conservation and developing renewable sources.


The science for improving conservation is quite advanced and is limited only by the laws of nature (thermodynamics ultimately). Translating science into technology is a mean feat and the world must get on with it. The more efficient you get, the more difficult further improvements become, because of the thermodynamic limits imposed by nature.

Conservation issues are complicated by the economics of the equation. For example, much has been made of hydrogen as a fuel. The trouble is that virtually all of the hydrogen on earth is bound up chemically with other elements, principally oxygen and carbon. It takes energy to win hydrogen from its combined forms before it can be used as a fuel. Hydrogen fuel has the advantage of being non-polluting. At the same time, it is more difficult to handle than liquid fuels. Hydrogen suffers the same limitation that petroleum does, it is not renewable. It will always be expensive and rely upon other energy sources for its creation.

Atomic energy by fission is a seeming salvation. It is possible to produce more atomic fuel than is consumed in breeder reactors. Handling nuclear waste products, however, has become a loaded question--for good reason. Nuclear waste products remain radioactive for millennia. To an extent, they can be recycled, used as low grade energy sources, or put to other uses. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island highlighted the public health issue. Safe disposal of nuclear waste is still a technology in its infancy.

Nuclear fusion of hydrogen isotopes would harness the fuel of the sun and could become a virtual panacea. But the technology needed to light such fires controllably is also in its infancy and may in the end be uneconomical, at least by today's standards.

With traditional energy sources, such as petroleum and coal finite, and a nuclear solution still an uncertain future, it behooves us to transition to renewable sources as soon as possible. Oil now sells in the neighborhood of $50 a barrel and could easily go to twice that in 2006.

Renewable Energy

Direct conversion of sunlight to useful energy is already here to stay in various forms. Photoelectric cells, also known as the solar cells, convert sunlight directly to energy. Green houses are ubiquitous as a means of trapping solar energy--extending growing seasons in effect. Solar heating has become an in-thing in architecture. Capturing energy from wind is now big business, producing significant amounts of power. So also for geothermal sources, where the earth's internal heat is tapped by recirculating water. Each of these sources has the disadvantage of being stationary or limited by transmission lines.

Alcohol from agricultural products is an exception. It is already an economical fuel with huge economic potential. Corn, for example, can be used to produce ethanol (alcohol) by fermentation with useful liquid and solid by-products. Feremented alcohol has the huge advantage in that it is part of a closed system, the carbon cycle, here on earth. It is limited only by the amount of fertile acreage, rainfall, irrigation, and sunlight available for such use.

There are non-renewable ways to manufacture alcohol as well for meeting short-term needs. Ethanol is not the only alcohol. It is just one of the easiest to produce. With oil prices hovering in the $50 per barrel range, alcohol becomes quite competitive. Its production and use should be pushed vigorously.


Gridlock in Washington and Detroit special interests have conspired to delay energy development. [A note of likely significance: These two cities are among the most violent in America.] Cuts in oil consumption and expanding renewable sources have both been retarded by these special interests.

Modernization has now come to Asia big time. For example, China now imports seven times as much oil as it did just seven years ago. China is now vieing with its neighbors for offshore drilling rights. Japan and Taiwan have strong histories as industrial nations, and their expanding economies are fueled by petroleum. These trends will only accelerate in the near term. Oil supplies can only be tight from now on. So prices must rise in response to market demand. The up side of that is that alcohol will become more economical apace.

Some of the easy fixes are obvious:
  • Increase the mileage standards from the current 25 miles per gallon to 35 or even more. Offer consumer tax credits to offset increased vehicle manufacturing costs. Use money from the next item to pay for that.
  • Eliminate federal subsidies to the energy giants. They are not only awash in profits, but will be for a long time. Free markets [not favored markets] are the best way to ease the transition to renewable energy sources.
  • Continue to increase energy efficiency in new products and architectures. Retrofit new technologies wherever possible.
  • Revise antitrust practice and laws to facilitate the transition to renewable energy with a view of increasing competition ahd innovation, not of stifling them.
  • Enlist Americans in the effort. Energy conservation should be ingrained in our culture. Indeed, all world societies in the world must do the same, for energy supplies can never be infinite.
  • Change our national ethos to one of concern for issues of energy and the environment; what we have of each will always be limited. Upgrade our educational system to produce people who can think and are motivated to think for themselves, and who are conscious of energy and environmental issues.

These fixes, or their equivalents, must become the way of all citizens on earth.


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