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The Year Ahead . . . and Beyond

Clint Wilder's picture

As the pivotal year of 2004 begins, it's a good time to look toward the future -- not just the new year, but the rest of the 21st century's first decade and beyond. Many look at that horizon and wonder where our energy will come from. Will it be wind, solar, hydrogen, and biomass? Or coal, petroleum, and natural gas? The answer, of course, is yes. For many years to come, the world will require both renewable and nonrenewable resources for electricity, industrial production, heating and cooling, and transportation. As those years unfold, the world faces two enormous challenges that will affect just about all 6.3 billion of us, our children and grandchildren. The first is the challenge to our economies and lifestyles as the nonrenewable resources, particularly oil, begin to dwindle, and the resulting inevitable political and military conflicts over those resources. The second is the challenge of slowing global climate change by reducing the production of greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, these challenges loom at a time when the richest, most powerful, and most energy resource-intensive nation on earth is deeply polarized and divided on many issues. I won't waste valuable data bytes belaboring the reasons for that, but I will speak out against bringing the either/or, black-or-white, "with us or against us" mentality into the energy field. In the long run, it's counter-productive to everyone's interests. Those who denigrate renewable energy on a meaningful scale as a costly, decades- away pipe dream -- or worse, scoff at the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions -- are ignoring reality. On the other side, those who pretend that we won't need fossil fuels for the next several decades are ignoring reality, too. "The adversarial dynamic hinders energy policy," said Roger Ballentine, president of sustainable energy consultancy Green Strategies Inc., at the power industry's PowerGen International conference last month in Las Vegas. "Both sides need to get real. The more extreme environmentalists need to understand, for example, that coal is a cheap and abundant domestic resource, and the power generating sector needs to understand that climate change is a very real phenomenon that absolutely must be dealt with." I agree with Ballentine that the two sides need to come closer together on the issue of coal gasification, an ever-improving technology that reduces coal pollutants, such as mercury, prior to combustion. Coal gasification produces marketable by-products like hydrogen and sulfur, and captures carbon that can be more easily sequestered. I wouldn't go so far as to call it renewable energy, as a bill in the Minnesota state legislature last year tried to claim. But it does help reduce the devastating environmental consequences of a critical energy resource that's abundant in some of the world's largest economies, including the U.S., China, India, and Russia. "Clean coal" is an oxymoron along the lines of "jumbo shrimp," but you wouldn't be out of line calling it "cleaner" coal. That makes it a great "bridge" technology -- one that's here today with great potential to decrease environmental harm while the industry evolves toward greater use of renewables. Another important bridge technology is the gasoline-electric engine in hybrid cars. In a piece of great news for our energy future, Motor Trend magazine awarded its Car of the Year honor, the auto industry's most prestigious, to the 2004 Toyota Prius hybrid. Just one week after the award, Toyota said it would boost Prius production in the U.S. by nearly a third. Motor Trend is Detroit's bible for auto performance and "muscle cars"; the same issue that lauds the Prius also touts the first road test of the 500-horsepower Ford GT and Dodge Viper. "I'm no tree-hugger," acknowledges editor-in-chief Kevin Smith, before waxing enthusiastic about the Prius' cutting-edge hybrid technology, clever design, and superior performance. It's simply a great car, by any standard, that happens to get 60 miles per gallon. Hybrid cars are a terrific bridge technology toward a renewable energy future, not just because of their fuel efficiency and dramatically reduced emissions, but because they allow mainstream consumers to painlessly switch to something new. Every day, more and more people will learn that you don't have to plug it into an electric socket (the most common misconception), that it really can go 85 miles an hour, and it won't die halfway up a steep hill. The Weird Factor begins to vanish, the Cool Factor takes its place. Or at the very least, it's normal. We clearly have a long way to go toward a renewable energy future, and many signs, like policy foot-dragging and denial about climate change, are not hopeful. But the movement of hybrids and other bridge technologies into the mainstream are very positive incremental steps. Let's hope. Clint Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder@