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What will come after fossil fuels?

By Marty Bender
Prairie Writers Circle

(Thursday, Aug. 21, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Instead of flexing our muscles in Iraq, we should be using our brains at home. The invasion of Iraq will increase our political access to Persian Gulf oil -- two-thirds of the world’s reserves. However, that oil will eventually run out, as will other fossil fuels like natural gas and coal.

Around 2025, give or take a decade, humans will have consumed half of all conventional oil resources that ever existed on Earth. With the rest increasingly hard to pump, production will begin to decline, leaving us vulnerable to a global economic crisis as oil supplies tighten and prices climb.

We should develop other energy sources now, while we still have abundant fossil fuels to do it.

Also, the sooner we adopt environmentally benign energy sources, the less we will suffer from the problems caused by the use of fossil fuels -- ozone pollution, acid rain and global warming. Global warming may not be obvious now, but geologic evidence warns us that the greenhouse effect from burning all of the planet's oil, natural gas and coal reserves could easily melt enough Antarctic ice to raise the sea level 200 feet. This would submerge the nation's coastal areas containing major cities and producing one-third of the gross domestic product.

Which energy sources are to replace fossil fuels?

We should take a cue from U.S. insurance companies and drop nuclear power. Insurers have never been willing to fully cover the potential liabilities of reactors’ huge risks. The nuclear industry would not exist except for repeated congressional acts since 1959 limiting commercial liability for accidents and sabotage. Claims of safer designs are irrelevant as long as the industry refuses to operate without a liability limit.

Another energy source is fusion, which powers our sun, but engineering difficulties indicate this is at least half a century from being commercially viable. And although predicted to be safer than nuclear fission, it will still have huge risks that require unacceptable liability limits.

Without nuclear power, fossil fuels must be replaced by renewable fuels and solar energy.

This transition will be hard. It takes energy to get energy, and we do not get as much energy back from renewable energy sources as from fossil fuels. During the past century, the U.S. economy has largely been powered by fossil fuels that returned as much as 100 times the energy spent taking them from the ground. In contrast, the ethanol in your car’s gasohol barely contains more energy than was needed to make it from corn. Other renewable fuels are only slightly better. At most we get back 10 times the energy consumed in building things such as wind turbines, hydroelectric dams and solar cells.

This means we cannot expect renewables to produce the amount of energy our economy now consumes.

So we must aggressively pursue efficiency and conservation, reducing our consumption to what can be met by renewable sources without slowing our national economy. Our vehicles could get much better fuel mileage, and there is great room for more efficiency in commerce and manufacturing. Things such as double-pane windows, ceiling insulation and passive solar housing have high energy returns, often saving 25 to 100 times the energy used to make and install them.

Concerned, dedicated citizens and strong political leadership will be needed to launch this effort while fossil fuels are abundant. Our descendants will not forgive us if we squander this opportunity and leave them to make an energy revolution in crisis.


Marty Bender is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at The Land Institute, Salina, Kan., where he is a senior scientist and conducts energy analysis in agriculture.