Energy is everything (almost)

“Energy” has many meanings. But there’s one way to see it as everything. Energy is Man’s discovery of fire, how civilizations ate (from hunter gathering to farming), the population-exploding Industrial Revolution, and the cause of Gulf Wars. It’s fossil fuels and solar power. It’s the photosynthesis of forests and flowers, as well as our daily energy and body temperature.

I see this big picture because I covered energy as a beat in Rhode Island in the early 80s, taking a course on it from a physics professor at Brown and reading experts like Daniel Yergin and Amory Lovins. I’m no expert, but I covered the problems of trying to build the Seabrook nuclear power plant – not just the protests but Wall Street shunning it due to problems of safety and security. I covered deregulation. It’s complicated. As I obsess now over the need for the world to deal with climate change, I admit it’s complicated and confusing, even to me.

So with some relief, I read an Ezra Klein column in the Times dividing the big picture into three parts, like Caesar did Gaul. He calls these three “goals society can have for its energy usage.”

The first is to use less. You can recycle, go vegetarian, and bike-ride to work. Or like me, you might drift into lifestyle changes based on tax credits (we bought an electric Nissan Leaf), and less income (with my retirement, we sold our big old house and moved into a condo).

The second type of energy goal, in Klein’s big picture, is doing the same things we do, but with less fossil fuel. De-carbonization. Wind, solar, maybe even small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). That’s the goal of Biden’s successes and the latest climate summit in Egypt. The change is huge, but what we do with the energy is maintain the status quo.

And for the third and last energy goal. . .meet the Jetsons. It’s about entirely new sci-fi sources of “clean and abundant energy” that would supposedly open up whole new ways of living, the way coal, gas and oil improved everything (except maybe what we lost in our humanity).

A little understanding about energy seems pretty important, and generally lacking. For a little understanding, I have come to some basic principles about energy. One is that there’s no free lunch. Batteries in our Leaf are heavy as hell and take the extraction of all kinds of dirty chemicals from faraway places. And it’s hardly burning less fossil fuel if the power is from coal- or gas-burning power plants.

Decarbonization is incremental, always with downside costs. But let’s do it.

Another principle is that, paradoxically, energy isn’t everything. It’s “necessary but not sufficient” in defining human life, the great mystery that includes language, religion, meaning, insanity, love, baseball and so on.

And now I have one more simple principle. Of the three “energy aims” Klein outlines, none of the three is bad, unless it sees the other two as bad.  “Abundant, clean energy” would actually be a terrible thing because of human nature, but impossible because of the laws of physics. We need all three goals – using less, decarbonizing and big breakthroughs – and a better grasp of what we’re up against.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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