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Energy Abundance vs. the Poverty of Energy Literacy

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Energy is all around us and we consume copious quantities of it. We only question it when it’s expensive or not there. Therein lies a challenge for politics and society.

Editor’s note: This essay is the first in a series that will explore issues in energy literacy and energy policy.

In the midst of all the debate over fossil fuels, we seem to have forgotten this fundamental role of energy in life. We think that all we need energy for is to drive our cars, fly around the world, run our electrical gadgets. But more important is that abundant energy is necessary for our way of life, for our civilization.

If that energy were to vanish, we would find ourselves once again living at the margin, and might well see the end of many things that we don’t associate with an energy supply, including democracy and the freedom and creativity that leisure makes possible.Daniel B. Botkin

Even though energy is all around us, and we consume copious quantities of it in virtually every form imaginable, most people only really think about energy when one of two things happens: Either they open their mail one day and have an unwanted epiphany when they realize that one of their energy bills has become uncomfortably high—for diesel fuel, electricity, natural gas, heating oil, propane, and so on. Or, they suddenly have one of their energy systems or energy-dependent devices let them down, as, for example, when the electricity goes out; the alarm clock fails; the stove won’t light; the water heater breaks down; the car runs out of gas or has a flat battery; their Kindle, netbook, iPod, or Droid is powerless; or, worse, they wake up to a dead coffeemaker (something that would probably disturb many Americans most of all).

Our low-cost-energy blessing has not been an accident.

But such instances have not been all that common in the United States. For many decades, Americans have had the good fortune and innumerable economic, health, and lifestyle benefits of using highly affordable energy. While most Americans will remember periods where prices spiked, such price shocks have been relatively infrequent events, usually triggered by an outside cause, such as instability in the Middle East or unexpectedly rapid economic growth in China.

This low-cost-energy blessing has not been an accident: Unlike many other countries, U.S. taxation on energy has been reasonably low; regulations have been significant, but offset by continued access to abundant and affordable energy; and we have benefited from a highly efficient private energy sector to discover, produce, and bring energy (both in liquid form and as electricity) to meet consumer demand.

Despite periodic power outages or equipment breakdowns, Americans are generally blessed with pretty reliable energy systems. Most of the time, when you reach for an energy-dependent device (which you do far more than you realize, as will be discussed later), the energy is there for you on demand, 24/7, to cook your food, light and heat your home, bring entertainment and important information to a monitor near you, and take you where you want to go in a speedy, comfortable, and generally safe manner.

That’s not the case for much of the rest of the world. According to Scientific American,

An estimated 79 percent of the people in the Third World—the 50 poorest nations—have no access to electricity, despite decades of international development work. The total number of individuals without electric power is put at about 1.5 billion, or a quarter of the world’s population, concentrated mostly in Africa and southern Asia.

And the situation is particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where “several entire nations… [are] effectively non-electrified. In 11 countries, all in Africa, more than 90 percent of people go without electricity. In six of these—Burundi, Chad, Central African Republic, Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone—3 to 5 percent of people can readily obtain electric power.” Given that we know how to produce and distribute electricity efficiently, such energy poverty is a completely unnecessary affliction in the developing world.

Given that we know how to produce and distribute electricity efficiently, energy poverty is a completely unnecessary affliction in the developing world.

Americans are also blessed with having increasingly safe energy supplies, which put out ever-decreasing quantities of hazardous air and water pollutants and operate with greater physical safety than ever before. Most people in developed countries such as the United States face dramatically fewer health risks from the production, distribution, and use of energy than they have in the past. The same is true for most animals and ecosystems. That’s not to say that energy is entirely safe—few things in life are. And energy production, distribution, and associated air and water emissions are clearly not environmentally benign. But virtually all of the energy-related trends involving human health and the environment are positive in developed countries such as the United States.

Of course, saying this will raise an immediate question from many readers: “What about climate change and greenhouse gases?” And that’s an excellent question, one that would require a good 1,000 pages to discuss in any kind of depth. Without dismissing the importance of the issue—how climate-change perceptions could influence public policy is very important indeed—this series of essays will not spend much time on the climate change issue for a very simple reason: There is really no prospect for influencing climate change through short- or even medium-term energy policy.

I happen to believe that the greenhouse effect is real—that all things being equal, human greenhouse gas emissions trap a modest amount of heat in the atmosphere, and such changes may indeed pose risks to people and ecosystems. However, I also have great doubt in computerized soothsaying and do not believe that computer models can accurately capture the complexity of today’s climate; the sensitivity of our climate to greenhouse gas emissions; the various feedbacks that could exacerbate or negate the effect of greenhouse gas emissions; the historical climate of the distant past; and especially the future of the climate system.

China is now the world’s second-largest economy, the world’s largest energy consumer, and the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.

But one’s belief in climate change is, in a sense, irrelevant to a discussion about energy for one reason: Nothing that Americans (or the rest of the developed world) can do now would significantly reduce the likelihood of environmental harms, even if the people predicting disaster are correct. Yes, we could tinker around the edges of our energy system and produce some slight reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but the reality is, China is now the world’s second-largest economy, the world’s largest energy consumer, and the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. Their emission trajectory would make anything that the developed world did purely symbolic. The developing world is now behind the wheel when it comes to setting climate policy.

While happy to deploy some renewable energy production here and there, China focuses overwhelmingly on electrification, using coal-fired power plants in order to grow their economy and lift their people out of energy poverty. The same is true of India and other developing countries focused on growth and alleviating poverty, which is a very noble goal. Even those alarmed about climate change and those in the environmental movement admit that, absent a worldwide crash-effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the developed world, acting alone, could do virtually nothing to reduce actual global warming or climate change.

This essay is the first in a series that will explore issues in energy literacy, and energy policy. Next up, humanity’s relationship to energy use!

Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is derived from the introduction of Abundant Energy: the Fuel of Human Flourishing, a supplementary text for college students, published by AEI Press.

FURTHER READING: Green also writes “Why Are Gasoline Prices High (And What Can Be Done About It)?” “Government Is a Lousy Venture Capitalist,” and “Electric Cars: Doubling Down on Dumb.” Jon Entine contributes “Power Generation: Will Germany Win its Post-Nuclear Bet?” and “New York Times Reversal: Cornell University Research Undermines Hysteria Contention that Shale Gas Is 'Dirty'.” Steven F. Hayward explains “Why the Climate Skeptics are Winning.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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