The Role of Carbon-Based Energy in the 21st Century Merits Increased Attention

The current energy buzz is all about alternatives – principally wind, solar, biofuels, and nuclear – and about reducing the use of carbon-based fuels and their emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.  The buzz is usually a little breathless, so breathless that only lip service is paid to the notion that coal, oil, and natural gas will continue to play an important role, especially in electricity generation and transportation, for several decades.

Don’t forget, these sectors currently dominate the global energy economy.  So, like any good manager of resources, we should be measuring before we manage. We must understand the role of carbon-based energy in meeting these needs in the decades ahead.  There are serious and vital concerns about their use, but in the near-term, we should answer some basic questions:

  • What is the domestic and global supply base and what strategic factors affect resource availability?
  • What effects will a growing supply of low- to moderately-priced natural gas have on the use of alternative energy fuels and technologies?
  • What new technologies can be applied to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from carbon-based fuel use and to capture and sequester carbon dioxide?

What economic considerations and policy options are relevant to energy choices in the coming decades?

Who should do that? Well, one place to start is on campus, asking the people who study for a living. More importantly, universities provide an objective forum for consideration of these important questions. Disregarding relevant issues because they deal with “fossil” energy resources and technologies favors the bandwagon at the expense of reality. Some universities have stepped up, for example MIT has published reports on the future of coal and natural gas. Most have chosen to disregard these important considerations in favor of appealing to the popularity of green energy topics among students. Not that these don’t merit serious attention, only that they ignore realities that should also be addressed.

Universities are competing for prominence in research and education in alternative energy, commonly creating energy institutes to feature programs in this area. Students and the general public are becoming increasingly aware of the opportunities a growing reliance on alternative energy resources and technologies provides for environmental improvement and energy security. But a headlong rush to understand these long-term solutions may have resulted in less attention being paid to how carbon-based energy will play in the coming decades in a world anxious to change its role, but one tied to carbon fuels and, at the same time, committed to environmental improvement. One example came in a recent New York Times story suggesting that China has become an importer of coal from the U.S. and Australia. Surely, advocates aren’t pleased by that development, but could a better understanding of present supply and demand have given us an earlier warning that it was about to happen?  Or that it reflects the reality of the role coal and other carbon-based fuels will play in developing economies?

We need a rigorous approach to assessing the trends in carbon fuel use and the developing technologies that render carbon-based energy sources less onerous environmentally. We also need to give serious consideration to the next generation of unconventional sources of oil and gas: oil shales and methane hydrates. Both have the potential to extend the supply life of the energy sources that can or do fuel most of our electricity generation and transportation systems. Whether we choose to use them or not is a policy decision, but that decision should be made with the best data available, not in a vacuum.

Our university courses and research programs should make these considerations as prominent as the more trendy focus on alternative energy sources and technologies. Otherwise we will decrease the potential to be innovative across all energy sources in ways that are compatible with our environmental goals.