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Page added on August 19, 2010

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Science: Do We Have the Energy for the Next Transition?

Alternative Energy

Past energy transitions to inherently attractive fossil fuels took half a century; moving the world to cleaner fuels could be harder and slower.

Wind turbines dot ridges, distillers turn farmers’ corn into ethanol by the billions of liters, and solar panels sprout on roofs. The energy revolution that will bring us clean, secure energy is under way, sort of. Never has the world so self-consciously tried to move toward new sources of energy. But the history of past major energy transitions—from wood to coal, and from coal to oil and gas—suggests that it will be a long, tough road to scaling up alternatives to fossil fuels that don’t stoke greenhouse warming.

A big problem is that, for the first time, the world is moving to tap new energy sources that are, in many ways, less useful and convenient than the currently dominant sources: fossil fuels. “Up to now, we’ve always gone to a better fuel,” notes economist Robert Kaufmann of Boston University (BU). And oil has proved the best of the better. Compared with wood or even coal or gas, it “is a great fuel,” Kaufmann says. Oil is densely packed with energy, easily transported and stored, and efficient at releasing its energy in modern engines.

Renewables are another matter. Fuel sources like corn kernels or wood chips tend to be bulky. Their energy content is diffuse. Planting energy crops and building solar or wind farms is a land-hungry process, and the energy they deliver is often intermittent and hard to store. So far, “you can’t run airliners or cars on photovoltaics,” Kaufmann says.

“We are confronted with a society built on high-quality energy, dense forms of energy, fossil fuels especially,” says Kaufmann’s BU colleague, ecological economist Cutler Cleveland. “Could you have the same standard of living with renewables? I don’t think we really know. Things might have to change very fundamentally.”

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