Time to Get Smart About Energy

Have you noticed? Two momentous debates on our collective future have recently turned. All of us who have been speaking out on these issues for years are now playing in a whole new ballgame. I'm talking about the debates on global warming and peak oil.

Fran Korten is Executive Director of Positive Futures NetworkFor too long the debate has raged over whether global warming was happening and whether human activity was causing it. On oil, the debate was whether we needed to worry about oil production peaking and when that might occur. Those debates are now over.

Due to untiring efforts by dedicated scientists, savvy advocacy groups, courageous independent media, and lots of truthseekers and truthtellers like you, we've faced down the disinformation campaigns of Big Oil and reached a turning point in the public discourse. I've been tracking the political, religious, media, and business positioning on global warming and peak oil. Here are some recent landmarks:

  • October 2005: U.S. Representatives Bartlett and Udall form the bipartisan Congressional Peak Oil Caucus to “address the inevitable challenges of ‘Peak Oil.'”
  • January 2006: President Bush declares the U.S. must break its “addiction to oil.”
  • January 2006: At a Houston Technology Center briefing, the CEO of the premier firm that tracks energy data tells an audience of industry insiders that the “peak oil” people are right—the era of cheap oil is over. He closes by saying that conservation is the most important way out of the crisis ahead.
  • February 2006: 86 prominent Evangelical leaders endorse the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which demands that Evangelicals respond to the urgent crisis of global warming “with moral passion and concrete action.”
  • April 2006: Time magazine's special issue on global warming sounds an unequivocal alarm that the Earth is at the tipping point with melting ice, drought, wind, disease, and fire raging out of control. The magazine reports a whopping 85 percent of Americans believe “global warming is probably happening.”

The political winds have shifted. The hot question is no longer “is this happening?” but “what do we do now?” That shift is triggering new debates with lots of new sources of contention.

How far can biofuels take us?

How about nuclear? Can we get the price of solar low enough to take off? How much wind energy can we produce and in whose backyard? Does hydrogen make sense or does pursuing it divert us from better solutions? To what degree can energy efficiency solve our problems? And how much can we rely on technology to save us and how much must we change the way we live?

We all need to get smart about those questions because there's going be plenty of balderdash out there. One way I've found to sort through the arguments is to focus on Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). It's a ratio that tells how much energy it takes to create the energy we want to use. As the chart on page 39 shows, in the good old days of cheap oil, we got 100 units of usable energy for every 1 unit of energy consumed in retrieving and processing the oil (an EROEI of 100 to 1). At that ratio, from an energy-invested perspective, oil was practically free.

But the ratios have declined dramatically. For oil today, we get less than 10 units of energy for every 1 unit we invest to get it. For ethanol made from some forms of sugarcane and corn, the EROEI may be as low as 0.8 to 1—we get less energy out than we put into making it—clearly a non-solution. Other sources of ethanol (such as cellulose) now yield 6 to 1, but may eventually have an EROEI as high as 10 to 1. The calculations are tricky, so expect to see different numbers from different sources.

Once you've mastered EROEI, you have to ask how a particular source of energy matches the need it will serve, and what side effects it will bring—especially how it contributes to global warming.

Those questions force us to confront the enormous quantity of oil we use every single day. Worldwide use is 85 million barrels, of which the United States uses 21 million. According to one best-case scenario, to supply the current U.S. oil needs with ethanol made from switchgrass (an especially efficient source), we'd have to grow switchgrass on two-thirds of all the farmland in this country.

As the new debates roll forward, we've got to keep our brains turned on and, as usual, discern what's coming from vested interest groups like agro-business giant Archer Daniels Midland, what is politically feasible but may be foolish, and what are real solutions. And, as we face the twin crises of global warming and peak oil, we've got to be willing to face some tough truths about how we need to change the way we live.

The new openness to recognizing the crises before us creates tremendous opportunities for building a more just and sustainable world—opportunities you read about in every issue of YES! So, as the new debates heat up, let's all weigh in with courage and smarts for choices that create community, health, and joy.

Fran Korten
Executive Director

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