Conserve now, renewables for the long term

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By The Staff

 The authors of the “Think twice ….” op-ed (Monitor, July 16, 2009) were correct in stating that at the current human consumption rate today’s scale of renewable energy production is devastatingly bleak.

Sharon Begley (Newsweek, March 23) summarized the outlook in scientific and engineering terms: “We cannot get there from here.”

The lack of knowledge needed in mankind’s search for substitutes for energy-dense liquid and other non-sustainable fossil fuels and minerals from the emerging sustainable and renewable sources is discouraging.

At first sight a nuclear-energy based future does appear to be attractive.

Unfortunately the authors suffer from a seriously short-sighted, nuclear-power driven agenda that is exclusively biased towards using nuclear energy sources.

They never advocate conservation which could quickly mitigate current and future energy and material needs without any new technology. In his highly acclaimed book “Sustainability by Design” the eminent MIT Engineering and Industrial Ecology Professor, John Ehrenfeld summarizes: “The vast majority of the human race don’t really ‘get it’ with regards to what’s truly ‘needed’ as opposed to what’s ‘wanted’…”

The unpleasant facts about future realities include:

1. Over-population - Almost all of the political, financial, social and climatic problems currently plaguing the world are ultimately caused by overpopulation, crowding and demand on existing food/water-supply, healthcare and energy resources.

Only China has seriously considered the problem and tried to combat it.  So far, their results have not been stunningly successful. 2. The increasing population’s “needs and wants.”

     High on either list will always be food supply. Despite huge advances in farming, animal breeding, fertilization, storage, packaging and distribution, a large proportion of the world is still underfed and malnourished.

Can the developed segments of the world’s population continue to maintain such advances for an increasing population?

If not, selective reduction in individual food consumption is inevitable.

Another highly treasured societal need is the energy and materials required for transportation, home heating or cooling and material goods production.

Currently the developed nations of the world rely almost 100 percent on non-sustainable sources that were generated millions of years ago and are now being permanently depleted. Their consumers do not begin to pay for their absolute economic and environmental cost.

Fossil fuels will become scarcer and more expensive.

Realistically, can unlimited air travel in increasingly cramped aircraft, 9-30 miles-per-gallon cars and trucks as viable personal and goods transportation be continued?  Remember the developing nations and the increasing numbers of the unborn who are all going to “want” a piece of this pie, too.

Just these two wide reaching sets of “wants/needs” alone imply that in the future there will be “rationing.”

 It will not be the democratic “governmental” kind but by what is available, whether it is renewable or non-renewable and by where the “wanted/needed” resources are located, produced, controlled by, or can obtain them. History shows it will be dictated by transiently powerful minorities, probably by force or war.

A nuclear energy option could possibly be part of a solution if: a) Sufficient nuclear fuels are available; or b) Their nuclear by-products can be stored, processed or transmutated safely.  

Fusion and transmutation research is promising and deserves research support and honest evaluation.

Current nuclear power stations have performed efficiently and relatively safely for 60-plus years. Most will have passed their operational life times within the next 30years. Little of their long half-life radioactive waste products have left these facilities for permanent storage or reprocessing.

Inevitably then, the reality is for a renewable solar-sourced energy to fuel the “wants/needs” of life. The sun rises every morning and seems ultimately far more attractive than thousands of nuclear generating facilities located throughout the world.

Now is the time to think and act with meaningful conservation measures and then think and act positively about creating “needed” renewables.

This policy must eventually be global and provide far-seeing sets of parameters to guide the choices the human race is going to have to make when generating its future true and realistic choices.

Solar based renewables then rank as much more friendly and accommodating survival options than non-renewables.


  Gerald B. Ansell was a former Los Alamos National Laboratory, Exxon, and U.S. Navy scientist and technical director of Stanford’s Center for Material Science. 

He is currently a sustainable energy policy consultant. He has over 50 publications in refereed technical journals and has written newspaper articles, letters and book reviews related to Sustainable Energy Policy.